Superior to the show on Broadway, mainly because the Act 2 problem for me worked a lot better in the film (in the theater I loved Act 1, hated Act 2.) Sondheim's lyrics are spiffy, his tunes...well not so much. Maybe because of that during several of the solo song numbers I found my attention flagging; but not with any of Maryl Streep's songs, which were both well acted and sung. The ensemble songs worked a lot better...Marshall did his best action direction during these numbers. I especially enjoyed "Agony", the comic relief duet by the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen...the latter needs to be cast in more films pronto!) The casting, costumes, set design, editing...all were close to perfection. Bottom line: this is a perfectly fine Disney fairy-tale cartoon film with real-life actors and a smarter than usual score.
Two Polish sisters were detained at Ellis Island in 1921, trying to immigrate to the U.S. One was ill; and the other was rescued by a morally tainted Jewish pimp and forced by circumstances to become a prostitute and worse. That is the set up for this exercise in miserablism that got the period and setting exactly right, but failed to deliver believable characters. I can't fault the lead actors, Cotillard and Phoenix, who gave fine, lived-in performances. And Jeremy Renner, in a relatively minor role, showed more charisma than he has in other recent films. Even the amber tinted cinematography glowed with authenticity. But the bleak story, dubious character development and morbidly melodramatic ending made for a heavy slog of a film.
Few actors can pull off a solo performance film. Tom Hardy is one who can. He plays Ivan Locke, on a real-time 1 1/2 hour car journey to London. The entire trip he is in touch with disembodied voices on his car phone as his life is falling apart. The point is that he stays cool and focused, despite provocations that had me suffering a nervous wreck just watching and listening to them. The cinematography is especially notable since basically it is all done with one set-up, yet is constantly varied and interesting. I might have wished for a more conclusive ending to the narrative; but it is hard to fault the impact of the simple story and Hardy's beautifully realized characterization.
Woody Allen is showing signs that his writing skills are diminishing. Set on the French Riviera in 1929, this intellectual rom com looked nice; but its droning central performance by the usually reliable Colin Firth plus the pretentious dialogue was just annoyingly arch. At least a vivacious Emma Stone and the scenery provided some freshness.
Typical "irascible old man gets schooled in life by a kid" movie. But this one is less cliched than usual. Bill Murray is in full-on W.C. Fields curmudgeon role here (a pose he seems particularly well suited for lately.) Melissa McCarthy successfully plays down her (for me) annoying comic persona...and for the first time I actually liked her in a movie. Naomi Watts was largely wasted under an authentic sounding Russian accent. And child actor Jaeden Lieberher gives one of the best smart young boy performances since Haley Joel Osment's heyday. Altogether a surprisingly affecting film
For a YA series about a future dystopia, the themes are pretty darn sophisticated. Add to the mix some of the most interesting young actors in a while (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort reprising their star-making turns in The Fault in our Stars plus hot Theo James from the TV series "Golden Boy") and you get a tasty confection. I waited for the video; but I'll watch the next installment on the big screen. And I'm looking forward to it.
I guess I'm just a sucker for a chick flick about love and honor in 1969, when two soldiers go AWOL from Nam to fly back home to get the girls who have gone hippie peacenik. Yes, it's an unrealistic premise. Yes the plot had holes you could drive a howitzer through. And sure, the production design never quite felt authentic to the period. But the acting here was first rate (especially Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer, two attractive Aussies who make a great all-American couple.) And the film was an honest depiction of the feelings of the time, of the conflict between those who went to fight and the anti-war demonstrators at home. So what if it was sappy and predictable. I genuinely cared about the main characters, the writing and acting was that good. And that makes up for a lot of pro forma Hollywood hokum.
OK, maybe I shouldn't rate this film because after an hour of masochistic wallowing in my own gambling addiction withdrawal, I simply couldn't take it any more. I don't recall having such a strong negative reaction to the original James Caan The Gambler; but then Rupert Wyatt is no Karel Reisz...not even close. It's not like I actually need to watch a degenerate gambler deliberately screw up his life; especially since Mark Wahlberg isn't very convincing doing it. An extra half-star for Jessica Lange in gargoyle mom mode and another half-star for John Goodman's half-naked mountain of putrid flesh.
Julianne Moore is superb playing Alice, a 50-year old linguistics professor who discovers she has early onset Alzheimer's syndrome...and even worse it is a rare genetic type that has a 50% chance of being passed on to her children. That is the set-up for an involving film that portrays dementia with terrifying realism. It's also a story of a family in peril, with fine performances all around (Alec Baldwin as her physician husband and Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parish and Kate Bosworth as her grown children.)
This is a multi-character drama featuring three intersecting stories telling of the pressures of contemporary life in post-banking crisis Iceland. Móri is an author suffering from the consequences of the death of a child. Eik is the daughter of wealth and power whose childhood was ruined by sexual abuse. As a consequence, she has turned to sophisticated prostitution. Sölvi is a former athlete working in the corrupt banking system. Their stories intersect in a complex tapestry which is very plot heavy. The film was involving enough. Its glossy production and fine direction made it stand out. But I just couldn't make myself relate to any of the strangely unsympathetic characters.
Joining several films this year, this is yet another coming-of-age story about a 19 year old boy! This one was definitely a downer from the Communist era in the Romania-neighboring country of Moldova. Viorel had been running drugs for his friend Goose, when his nagging mother insisted that he get a job. Her policeman friend got him a menial job peeling potatoes; but Viorel had difficulty extricating himself from the consequences of the petty crimes of his youth. It's all pretty well done, with some comic relief sequences about Goose's obsession with flying a hang glider. But the ending was so ambiguous and unsatisfying that it just about ruined my understanding of the rest of the film.
This is an unconventionally structured biopic with an incendiary lead performance by Gaspard Ulliel as Yves St. Laurent. Unlike Yves St. Laurent, the other film with the same subject this year, this one starts after Laurent leaves the House of Dior in the early 1970s to form his own atelier...and stresses his sybaritic lifestyle for the rest of his life rather than his creative process. The film is overlong and weirdly structured, jumping unaccountably between years; but the performances (especially by Louis Garrel who smoulders as St. Laurent's object of affection) and luscious cinematography are so fine that one forgives the film's flaws.
This is a fairly interesting coming-of-age story about a boy just turned 19 who has been raised institutionally since his parents rejected him. He's off on his own and faced with corruption at his menial job, a nosy landlady and a demanding girl friend who is more than he can handle. The film is well observed and has comic elements. It benefits greatly from a fine lead performance by attractive young actor Janko Mandic, whose stoic, upright character is coping well with all sorts of adversity.
The island of Malta is on the sea route that downtrodden Africans use to attempt escape to Europe. The country also heavily restricts and regulates fishing by the Maltese. The Simshar is a fishing boat which with its crew (including a young boy) sneaks out to do some illegal fishing. There is also a secondary story of a Maltese physician who is dedicated to caring for the African refugees. The stories intersect on the Mediterranean high seas when the fishing boat encounters problems and the refugees are stuck on board another boat. The film is tense and realistic, and I found myself caring greatly about the outcome.
Stanko is a Montenegran rebel guitar player and pop singer who sixteen years earlier had banished himself to London instead of killing the man who ordered his father's death. At the time his mother was pregnant, and now his sixteen year old brother Vojo is in love...but worried about his virginity. This film tells the story of the 24 hours when Stanko returns from exile to finish avenging his father. The script is actually pretty good, tense and intriguing. However most of the actors are so amateurish and over-the-top that the emotional effect is reduced.
Elelwani is a high born Lothoso (South Africa) tribal woman. She's in love with a city boy; but her father forbids marriage and demands she marry the tribal king. That is the set-up for an informative, but often confusing story of tribal politics and thwarted love. I had trouble keeping my attention focused.
This comic drama pokes gentle fun at the lengths countries go to to protect their sacred platinum/iridium exemplars of the kilogram. This film specifically is about how the Norwegian ingot compares with the original kilogram which is stored in Paris. The film tells the story of a young woman thrust into the position of representing her country at the annual kilogram convention when her father is unable to serve, and how she falls for a Parisian professor. Director Bent Hamer has a deliciously ironic style, smart and funny.
In 1984 Anna, a promising young 200 meter sprinter, was chosen to prepare for the Czech national Olympics team. Part of her training regimen was to receive daily injections of an anabolic steroid to build muscle (and keep up with the Russians and East Germans who were doing the same thing.) That is the basis of the plot of this quite involving story of the fate of a strong minded girl under the Communist regime at the time. Judit Bárdos is quite convincing as Anna, in a particularly physically taxing role. Anna Geislerová is also fine playing her politically suspect, former tennis star mother. This is an absorbing sports story...but also an indictment of the merciless mistreatment of athletes in Eastern Europe under Communism.
By the mid-19th century the forty tribes of Kyrgystan were no longer unified and ripe for conquest by the Russian Empire. This national epic is the based-on-true-events story of a strong minded woman, Kermanjan, who married a powerful lord, the Datka who ruled the Kyrgyz of the Alai. After her beloved husband was murdered, she became a powerful leader herself, one supporting conciliation with the more powerful Russian armies. The film has large scope befitting its themes; but it is also a well acted personal account of an historically important woman.
In this animated film, Signe is a Latvian woman living in New York whose family history is one of depression and mental illness. Utilizing fairly simplistic 2D animation and non-stop narration in Latvian (difficult to follow both the animated visuals and the subtitled narration), Signe tells her life story and that of her grandparents and parents. Unfortunately, neither the personalized family stories nor the occasionally surrealistic visuals were able to engage me for the entire film.
A Palestinian man is injured in the wake of a 2002 sniper attack which killed 11 Israeli soldiers. He is caught in random check-point soon thereafter, and when he is released from prison 10 years later he finds out that his wife is dead and his daughter had been adopted to parts unknown. That is the set up for this rather confusing story. Is it a melodrama about a father searching for his lost daughter? Is it a thriller about an ex-terrorist? Is it an exposé about corruption in the Occupied Territories? Is it a love story? It is probably all of those; but none of them particularly engaged me.
This period drama takes place in 1903 in Macedonia, which at the time was under the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Turks. The scion of a wealthy Macedonian family is returning home by luxury train from his studies in Paris, accompanied by a free-thinking American woman. On the journey they befriend a charismatic rebel, fall into the enmity of a drunken Turkish soldier commander. And then all these characters become embroiled in a bloody revolution that spares no one. The film has the earmarks of an authentic national epic: scope, romance, melodrama. However, I never felt that I quite understood the motivations of the characters...so I failed to emotionally connect with the film. Still, this was an impressive filmic achievement in terms of its huge production and period authenticity.
A pregnant woman in distress hails a taxi driven by a stoic taxi driver. He drives her to a hospital, and somehow gets involved with her plight as she and her unborn child fight for life. I'll admit that I had some trouble understanding the man's psychology, why he allowed himself to become so involved. But it is impossible to watch this film and not feel some empathy for the characters.
A group of Slovak partisans working against the Germans violently fall out among each other, leading to an execution of the traitors. Ten years later conflicts still arise under Communist rule, when the now married, former partisan leader is having a torrid sexual affair with a colleague. The film was so confusing about its characters and their motivations that I lost the thread of the story. About half-way through I wasn't finding anything to keep my interest, although the depiction of the two periods of the film was quite accurately portrayed. So I reluctantly walked...even though I had hopes that the film would eventually make its point clear.
Tradition in rural Ethiopia has it that a man kidnaps the girl he wants to marry. In this informative and involving film, 14-year old Hirut is carried off by six men on horseback as she is walking home from school. After being raped by the suitor who had been spurned by her father because his daughter was too young, Hirut escapes and shoots her tormentor, a crime traditionally punishable by death under every circumstance. That is the set-up for a powerful issue film with a feminist agenda, as a women's rights organization gets involved in the ensuing trial. This wide screen production was surprisingly well made, with excellent acting and superb technical credits. There were some unexplained lapses in the narrative; but all in all this was a fine, involving film.
In 2003 I saw director Muyl's French film The Butterfly, which had a similar plot: elderly man is given care of his spoiled granddaughter and they bond during a road trip back to the man's village. It's sentimental and a little hokey...but the Chinese scenery and the acting in this film are a far cry better than they were in the original film.
The year is 1944. A Jewish family in Bulgaria is living something of a normal life, despite the war raging in the region. The daughter is in love with the son of her father's old rival; and the son is one third of an affectional triangle with a Jewish girl from neighboring Greece and his Gentile best friend. Finally the horrors of war and the Holocaust catch up with some of the characters...however most Bulgarian Jews were kept safe from the Nazi extermination camps. This is a romantic drama with an attractive cast and a different kind of WWII story, enthralling and worth watching.
Seen under the title of Forgotten. This is the politically fraught story of a group of Bolivians in the dictator-ruled era of the 1970s who were disastrously caught up in the consequences of the American aided anti-Communist movement, Operation Condor. Featuring almost unbearable torture sequences and a disturbingly bleak outcome, the film was hard for me to watch, despite its historical relevance.
An ostensibly placid 14 year-old boy living with his impoverished, alcoholic mother and minor criminal older brother, contends in one eventful night with the violent process of dealing with his own sexual identity conflicts. The B&W photography which shows the dark beauty of the Helsinki waterfront so well, also emphasizes the seamy side of the protagonist's life living in the city's slums. This is a hard-to-watch, moody and bleak coming of age story with a distressing resolution, apparently adapted from a novel which might have clarified the characters' points of view better than the film script does. As it is, I was intrigued by the performance of young Johannes Brotherus as the boy; but also put off by his actions.
This fascinating, if distressing drama tells the story of an Orthodox couple where the wife wants a divorce after thirty years of a bad marriage. In Israel, divorce is only granted to the wife by the husband in Rabbinical court...there is no civil marriage and/or divorce. And in this case, perhaps out of spite, the husband refuses to grant his wife a "gett" (religious term for divorce.) The trial and proceedings take five years of horrifying (to an American lay audience) testimony. Co-director Ronit Elkabetz gives an amazing performance as the strong wife, miserable in her life but trapped by the system. As courtroom dramas go, this one is incredibly involving...despite the unfamiliarity and seeming unfairness of the Rabbinical court procedures. The film does seem too long with a frustrating incompleteness that probably mirrors the reality of the power of Orthodox religion in Israel today. The film is the third in a trilogy about an Israeli Jewish marriage. I had seen part two, 7 Days in 2008, the story of the same couple sitting shiva with their large family. I wasn't impressed by the previous film; but this one was more focused and far more successful as a film.
This wide screen historical sports drama is the second part of the saga telling the story of the first soccer World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1930. It is a sequel to the 2012 film Montevideo, Taste of a Dream which had the same cast. The current film is told from the point of view of the Serbian team which had surprising success at that event. Like the original, this film also had some effective soccer footage, much of it in slo-mo which helped me (a total soccer neophyte) to follow the action better than usual. However the current film also delves into several most likely fictitious stories of the players and their carousing and love affairs while in Montevideo, while stressing the corrosive effects that Capitalism and the promise of money and professional success (in the guise of a American promoter played by Armand Assante) had on the spirit of the Serbian team. The film is entertaining; but rather light fare.
This is an almost poetic, impressionistic documentary about the life of a self-destructive heroin addict. It is told through re-creating scenes from his life with masked actors and narration largely from writings by Luxembourg native Guido Peters. Peters spent much of his life as a quadriplegic and was generously treated by the welfare state despite his youthful criminality. Utilizing outstanding cinematography and a true film maker's artistic sensibility, director Cruchten manages to tell his shocking true story with economy and inventive montage.
This is a pleasant enough romantic comedy about two teachers who were sent in different years to a remote river house-boat school. They didn't encounter each other (although their lives are paralleled through clever editing). But the male teacher in 2013 discovers a diary that the plucky female teacher had left in 2011, and through reading this book he falls in love remotely with the former teacher. It's all rather cutesy...the characters are attractive, if their actions are predictable and corny. The film was entertaining enough; but I'm afraid I'm just too cynical to accept the premise of the script.
This Korean thriller tells the story of a failing fishing boat and its captain...how he got involved for the first time with smuggling countrymen into South Korea in the boat's hold, and what happens when a disaster occurs and just about everybody on the boat goes crazy. Its a tale of human nature gone amok...a kind of horror story in keeping with the oeuvre of producer Bong Joon-ho (director of Snowpiercer). I found it mostly unbelievable, even if it was based on a true story; but the murky, hand-held cinematography gave the film a certain immediacy that was hard to deny.
At the start of this drama, a husband returns home from work to find that his bi-polar wife has slit the throat of their adorable 9-month old daughter. The drama unfolds as to why it happened, and how the Danish system of mental care and rehabilitation responds in such cases. The story is told mostly from the husband's point of view, and it is very even-keeled with a startling lack of emotion (or, for that matter, audience involvement) considering the crime. I'm not sure that by the conclusion I understood the psychology of the participants, and because of that the film was somewhat disappointing.
In 1934 the Soviets liquidated millions of Kulaks in the Ukraine, sending many to Siberia. That is the background for this bleak epic film about a blind singer and the 13 year old American orphan boy who served as his eyes while they were on the run from the secret police. The boy's American Communist father had been murdered because of a subversive document which the boy inherited, thus the nationwide manhunt. The film is visually gorgeous, spectacular and intimate; but honestly I had trouble following the complicated story and keeping track of the characters.
An embittered old Singapore man, recovering from a scooter accident which killed his wife and left him a paraplegic, is being cared for by an Indonesian country girl. The old man only complains: the servant can't cook his favorite foods to the standards of his dead wife, and his son is a foreign worker in Australia and neglectful. All the while the servant is trying her best to cook fabulous, unappreciated meals while breaking into incessant song. This is a ten minute film stretched to 80 minutes...mostly by repetition of cooking scenes, frequent cuts to a koi pond and conversations with ghosts. The film's only saving grace is some beautiful cinematography and a relatively happy ending.
A farmer and his son are living in relative poverty in Burma. The son uses a new scooter as a taxi, and gets involved with an ethnic Chinese girl that he carries around town as she transports meth "ice," while both spiral downward into addiction. The film is slow to start, with long static takes. There is much heavy-handed social commentary about poverty and drugs. The film is so unremittingly pessimistic, the characters so impoverished and unsympathetic that it is a very difficult film to watch.
A stranger arrives on horseback at a secluded 19th century Austrian alpine valley that has long been the fiefdom of a ruthless strongman and his six sons. Turns out the traveler is an American straight out of the Old West tradition, and one with an agenda of revenge against the ruling family which he executes in the tradition of such seminal Westerns as High Noon and Shootout at the OK Corral. The film has an exciting, percussive music track by Matthias Weber and wide-screen cinematography which features snowy landscapes as spectacular as any Hollywood Western. Only the somewhat predictable script and a wan main character hero (played by Sam Riley who doesn't quite have the charisma of a Gary Cooper) keep this film from achieving the standing of a classic Western.
Charlotte and Caroline are two young sisters, who along with their widowed mother are impoverished aristocrats in 1787 Germany. Caroline is in a loveless marriage of convenience, and younger Charlotte is sent to live with her wealthy godmother in Weimar to aid her marriageability at court. The sisters have vowed to share everything...and that eventually includes a menage à trois with famed, but poor poet Friedrich Schiller. That is the set up for a turgid, overlong and soapy costume drama which spans a couple of decades. The acting (especially Florian Stetter as the dashing Schiller) is fine, as is the cinematography and authentic period production design and gorgeous costumes. Only a set of garish, anachronistic chapter titles seem out of place for the period. For me it was all too much of a cliched "woman's picture" which focused too much on the women's tendency to hysteria.
This film is set in a ramshackle community in the Teheran suburbs, where Afghani undocumented refugees live and work among the wreckage of a reclaiming metal works operation. Saber is a young Iranian boy working in the metal shop alongside several Afghani illegals. Marona is the daughter of Abdolsalam, a tradition bound widower emigrant from Kabul. When the young couple become chastely involved with each other, and the Iranian boy seeks approval from the Afghani girl's father for marriage, it sets in motion a "Romeo and Juliet" kind of tragic love story. This is an affecting social-issue drama, told with a kinetic camera and some fine, if occasionally over-the-top acting. The ending packs a particular punch in the gut, raising the level of the film considerably.
Xiao Hong was a Chinese novelist and essayist whose tragic life is the subject of this lengthy, reflective biopic. As played by the luminous Tang Wei, she was a remarkable artist living an unconventionally libertine life for the 1920s and 1930s. The story is told from on-camera reminiscences by the characters who later wrote about her life in addition to material from her works as narrated in Hong's voice. The film is visually beautiful, painted on a wide canvas often drenched in the whites of winter scenes and the violent upheavals of war. Hong lived as a free spirited artist, among what must have been for the times and place a very avant-garde group of friends and lovers. Personally, I found it difficult to keep track of the large cast of characters in Hong's life...many of the men had similar names and resembled each other. But Hong's singular life story always intrigued.
The poor Dominican shantytown of Santa Domingo is dominated by a struggle between the drug lord El Bacá and the corrupt police. The film centers around two half-brothers with the same Dominican (white) father. Janvier is the good, illegitimate son, his mother a Haitian. Janvier is secretly in love with the drug lord's sister. Rudy is the sneaky, manipulative white son, jealous of his brother and determined to take over the drug trade by guile. Their personal struggle (and the oppression of the political and social milieu) has black and white elements reminiscent of Othello vs. Iago and Able vs. Cain. The film opens with an exciting Riverdance type scene where much of the town is playing an intricate musical production using found props as drums. After that excitement, the film never manage to overcome its over-amped theatricality.
Aydin is a man of means who owns a hotel hewn into the rocks of a tourist site in Cappadocia, in the Anatolian steppes. He is in an increasingly unhappy marriage to pretty, much younger Nihal; and contending with his depressed sister Necla. A 10-year old boy throws a rock through his Land Rover's window and three plus hours of endless talking and moralizing ensue. The cinematography is masterful, mostly dimly lit interiors and gorgeous winter outdoor scenes which capture the strange setting perfectly. The plot is Chekhovian mixed with Bergmanesque: meaning character development through lots of pretentious dialogue. Unfortunately for me, the monotony of the voices, the mostly lack of overt action, and the opacity of all of the characters' motivations meant I really wasn't understanding what was happening beneath the surface. A character driven film this subtle demanded more attentiveness than I was able to give.
This is not your ordinary young-girl-and-her-dog movie. 13-year old Lili is left in her stern father's care along with her dog Hagen when her mother attends a three month conference in Australia. Hagen is a mutt, and worse not even a Hungarian breed...so the state demands a dog tax, and defiant Lili is forced by her father to desert the dog in the mean streets of Budapest. That is the setup for a weird and original story which is told largely from the dog Hagan's point of view (low, subjective camera) as he struggles to survive in an allegorical dog-eat-dog world of massive numbers of strays. Meantime Lili, who plays trumpet in a children's orchestra, is coming of age big time. The film is somewhat overlong for its premise and has some hard to take, apparently simulated, animal violence; but the visuals are amazing and the gripping story progresses in unexpected ways.
Set in 1965, this historical docudrama tells the "inside" story of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama from the point of view of its spiritual leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. Manifestly not a biopic...even King's speeches were rewritten because the filmmakers could not obtain the rights to the copyrighted materials...the film tried to be a stirring tribute to the principles of non-violence and the heroism of the people, black and white, who rallied to the cause of civil rights. Perhaps because the secondary characters (Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace) were so miscast, perhaps because the camera direction was so pedestrian, and likely because the characters around King (especially his wife Coretta) were so sketchily written, I had trouble getting adequately emotionally involved with this film. Still, David Oyelowo's performance as King was more than fine...and the fake speeches he delivered did manage to thrill. I recognize the good intentions of the filmmakers; and I'm sure their efforts will not go unrewarded. I just found the film to be a profound disappointment.
This immaculately rendered romantic costume drama is based on the true story of Dido Belle, a much loved mulatto girl born the illegitimate daughter of a high born English navel officer. She was raised in the mid-18th century by her uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, the high judge of England who was instrumental in ruling against the slave trade. The film is very faithful to the era, one of the better depictions of Georgian England we've had on film. There are a plethora of fine British character actors here, ranging from Matthew Goode to Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson. But Tom Wilkinson stands out for his sterling portrayal of the elderly jurist. Gugo Mbatha-Raw is convincing as Belle, although the script calls for her to display contradictory emotions in adjoining scenes, which she barely pulls off. Director Amma Asante's sensibility runs to romantic sentimentality which works fine until it is overdone in the final scenes. The combination of race and class here is like experiencing a Jane Austin story with a negro heroine.
A married Swedish couple and their two young children are on a six-day skiing vacation at a posh French resort. When an unexpectedly dangerous event occurs, the parent's relationship is stressed with psychological consequences for all. The film is gorgeously shot, with beautiful exterior alpine snow scenes which somehow purvey a feeling of constant menace. And not since Kubrick's The Shining, has a hotel itself been given such a star treatment. The film is an intimate family psychodrama with a warped and occasionally wryly comic point of view, as someone put it: Ingmar Bergman combined with Michael Haneke.
Set in a bleak, northern Russian seaside town, this gorgeously shot drama tells a Book of Job like story of a man beset on all sides by corruption, greed and betrayal. It is a daring political statement about present day Russia; but the ending was just ambiguous enough to leave me wondering what actually happened.
Lucia was a pediatric nurse working in a hospital with severely ill babies. When one of her babies dies, she is accused of being an angel of death, guilty of killing several babies (and elderly patients in her past). That's the set-up for a very satisfying film about the lengthy process of righting a wrong when the judicial process goes astray. It's based on a true story of public hysteria and prosecutorial misconduct which was almost too horrific to be credible. But Ariane Schluter's dispassionate take on the long suffering nurse gave the film the gravitas it needed to be believable.
Arab Taliban like jihadists have invaded and rule the Mali Saharan town of Timbuktu. That is the setting for this slow to develop cautionary drama, beautifully shot wide screen in the agrarian desert. The plot revolves around a native family of cattle herders, along with other inhabitants chafing under the interpretation of Sharia Law that the invaders bring (no singing, no cigarettes, women wear socks and gloves etc.) The father gets in trouble with the Arab authorities and undergoes a trial under the strict interpretation of the laws. That's about it for story; but the film is all about the frightful consequences of Islamic religious orthodoxy run amok. The film gets the terror right; but the disjointed narrative and confusing ending detracted from the effectiveness of the message.
This miniature epic film tells the story of an old man and his granddaughter who, in the midst of a war zone in the Caucasus, inhabit a small temporary island formed from spring torrents in the middle of a large river. They build a wooden shelter and plant and harvest a large corn crop. They also have to contend with the political situation of skirmishing soldiers, in addition to fighting the elements affecting their little island. The film is almost wordless; but the atmosphere is provided by a dense sound-track and excellent acting by the principals. I'm not sure I understood the allegory of the ending; but the film is gorgeous to look at from start to finish, and quite affecting.
This film is comprised of six unconnected stories, with the general theme of people exacting revenge upon those who have wronged them. It's a wickedly black comedy, occasionally absurd, but always spot on narratively and visually. Films don't get much more enjoyable to watch than this one.
Despite some logical flaws, this was a much better than average 6-part Sci Fi miniseries, with a complex, multifaceted plot, vivid cinematography and superb production design. The twist at the end of part 2 was completely surprising...so I'm not going to give any spoilers. If the powers that be decide to let this become an actual series, I'll watch for sure.
Gael Garcia Bernal is convincing playing Iranian born journalist Maziar Bahari in this based on a true story of Bahari's 118 day imprisonment and torture in an Iranian jail. His crime: covering the 2009 election for Newsweek. Director Jon Stewart (yes, *that* Jon Stewart) does a fine job setting the scene and directing the actors. If the story seemed familiar and previously done in other contexts, it still was a story that needed to be told.
Another nihilistic post-apocalyptic Australian film a la Mad Max. Ultra violent for no apparent good reason. If this doesn't end Pattinson's brief reign as movie idol, it's only because nobody is going to watch this dreck. Guy Pierce was fine, as usual...although half his dialogue was lost from mumbling. Michöd's direction consisted of long takes of actors staring into the distance punctuated by occasional fast action scenes of wanton killing. Even South Australia looked butt ugly; but not as ugly as the script.
I've steered clear of Thomas Pynchon novels...knowing after a few chapters of "Gravity's Rainbow" in the mid-'70s that this writer wasn't for me. Watching this strange film, with its mixture of old fashioned hardboiled L.A. detective story and hairbrained comic caper film, I could never quite grasp what was actually going on. Then I saw the "based on a Pynchon novel" card in the end credits and suddenly my loathing of the plot all made sense. I can't blame the game actors: Joaquin Phoenix, who is in just about every scene, shamelessly chews up the scenery...but in a good way, he's so committed to portraying his demented P.I. And Martin Short is especially vivid in his comic relief villainy. As usual, P.T. Anderson brings his own warped, singular sensibility to the visuals. But this mess of a film just didn't work for me.
The true story of 1936 Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini who spent much of WWII in a Japanese prison camp being tortured by a sadistic corporal nicknamed "The Bird." The film breaks no new ground...it's very reminiscent of past POW films like King Rat. But the tense bomber and marooned-at-sea sequences which make up the first half of the film were nicely done. The film is conventionally structured with dream-like flashback sequences to Zamperini's pre-war past and a moving epilogue which provides some emotional closure. But the script, partially credited to the Coen brothers, is filled with predictable cliches. Still, director Joli found in Jack O'Connell an ideal actor to play Zamperini, with his distance runner's physique and all-American glow (oddly enough none of the actors playing major characters were actually American.) And for me, at least, the film worked, thrilling despite its flaws.
The gay art film reduced to senseless drivel. The fractured narrative might work as an examination of a split personality or maybe an onanistic wet dream. But the poor acting and really bad technical credits made even that impossible. As bored as I was watching this, I still stuck it out to the bitter end to see if any of it could be made to make sense. It never really did; but at least the actors were attractive.
Director Favreau plays a chef in a mid-life crisis: his boss (Dustin Hoffman) doesn't want him to progress as a culinary artist, and he feels distant from his 10 year old son (a fine kid performance from Emjay Anthony) and his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara). So he quits his job and puts together a food truck featuring Cubano food. That's the set-up for this amiable, feel-good dramedy. There's not enough conflict in the script; but the gorgeously shot food sure looks scrumptious.
Doc is a college student in New York City who sets out to document on video his encounters with a go-go boy aptly named Go, that he met on-line. That is the set up for this visually dazzling, sexy and smart fake documentary. Tanner Cohen and Matthew Camp play Doc and Go with intelligence and emotional veracity. They also make an attractive couple in this hard-R film that never goes over the line into pornography. Until the end credits I was never quite sure that this wasn't a real documentary. First time director Cory Krueckeberg utilizes every editing technique available in this digital age: split screens, slo-mo, montages set to an impeccably selected dance music sound track. But what sets this film apart is the chemistry between the two leads which is the main factor which sells this film as a real, rather than mock documentary.
Despite adequate special effects and excellent 3D cinematography, this Biblical epic film retelling of the Passover story is dramatically inert and spiritually troubling. I'm not sure that a rational, realistic depiction of the divine vengeance of the story could ever work on film; but with this script it just comes off as cruel overkill. And by personalizing the story as a family feud between a jealous Pharaoh and stalwart Moses, the motivations are even murkier. Some of this has to do with the terrible, hammy performance of Joel Edgerton as the Pharaoh Ramses (although Christian Bale's Moses does have the necessary gravitas to pull off his role.) Bottom line: shallow, stock characterizations, plus bombastic overproduction equals epic fail.
What could have been a simple adventure tale of a woman on a lengthy solo nature hike was turned by Nick Hornby's brilliant script into a complex story of personal revelation and growth. Reese Witherspoon has never been better, with her wide-eyed, physically demanding, transformative depiction of the real-life Cheryl Strayed as she naively starts the demanding 1,100 mile Pacific Crest trail hike and (MILD SPOILER) perseveres. The spectacular scenery, displayed with some of the best steady-cam cinematography I've seen, made me regret that my sedentary, movie-going life never took me on this trail when I was younger. This film confirms my conviction that Jean-Marc Vallée is firmly among the most people-wise, astute directors working today.
Tim Burton's glossy take on the 1950s is a visual treat, the highlight of a film which gradually diminishes as it becomes a he-said-she-said true-ish story. Amy Adams was fine here, as she transformed Margaret Keane from submissive wife to assertive artist. Christoph Waltz's grating, smarmy take on Walter Keane was just plain annoying. That Walter was presented as a straw-man villain unbalances the film, even if it was probably true to life. Still, enjoying this film was a guilty pleasure, sort of akin to my having been moved by the Keane's kitschy artwork back then.
Eastwood has made a truly subversive film. Ostensibly it is about the most successful American SEAL sniper in the second Iraqi war...a real gung-ho hero, Chris Kyle, officially credited with 160 plus enemy kills. It is as suspenseful, thrilling and realistic a depiction of the pursuit of modern warfare as that previous masterpiece (IMHO) The Hurt Locker. Like Locker, it shows the human side of its hero as the corrosive effects of this war gradually wear down his humanity. Bradley Cooper, an actor whose skills I've denigrated in the past, is outstanding here. He sells the heroic part; but also the humanistic part of his development...aided in the latter by the superb performance of Sienna Miller as his wife and unwilling anchor to his sanity.
But for all the heroics and bravado of battle, the subtext here is the disastrous unintended consequences of this insanely misjudged war which questions at every turn why we were in Iraq doing all this killing and wanton destruction in the first place. So what we have here (at least for any sensitive, thinking viewer) is a great anti-war film at the level of All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. How remarkable that at age 84, Eastwood is able to pull this off this sleight of hand.
A morality tale set in violent, corrupt New York City in 1981. Abel (played with subdued charisma by Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant trying to make his fortune with relative honestly in the gangster dominated heating oil delivery game. His wife (a strong performance by Jessica Chastain) is his helpmate, daughter of a gangster, willing to do what her husband won't. There is a definite element of Macbeth here. This is also the same era and milieu of Lumet's superior film Prince of the City; and it is difficult not to compare the two films. I have reservations about how psychologically valid the actions were of some of the characters. Occasionally the film rises to the level of gripping...only not often enough.
I'm on record as liking the previous two Hobbit films; and this gigantic f/x extravaganza didn't disappoint. Well, maybe a little. Certain scenes worked beautifully: especially the (SPOILER) slaying of the dragon which opens the film with a bang, and the LotR foreshadowing where Galadriel, Saruman and Gandolf confront the minions of Sauron (although this entire episode seemed like unnecessary padding which didn't further the plot at all, an inevitable problem with expanding a slender book into three epic parts.)
However, unfortunately the huge battle of the five armies which semi-climaxes the film, although not lacking in scope, did disappoint a bit (laughably improbable visual stunts and, for me at least, no emotional involvement with the all-too predictable deaths of some of the major characters.) Maybe it is just that after six films, Jackson's technical prowess here seems repetitive rather than innovative. I couldn't help myself from feeling: seen that, done that, bought the t-shirt, and enough already.
The oil boom in North Dakota is explored unconventionally through the eyes of children in this documentary short subject. The film visually explores the frozen winter landscapes and the monolithic industrial constructions of the oil fields with gorgeous cinematography that emphasizes hellish twilight and night scenes which could have come straight out of Dante's "Inferno". This is counterpointed with personal stories featuring reverie like narration from three of the oil worker's children (and one immigrant mother), as they experience living the itinerant life of their working fathers while making the best of it. The effect is innocence and natural beauty corrupted; but the filmmaker has managed to make this seem ordinary and even touching.
In this Mexican documentary short subject, Efrain works at a slaughterhouse. He has the nickname "The Reaper" since his job for the past 20 years has been to kill about 500 steer a day, 6 days a week. The film shows in artistically composed detail what happens throughout the slaughtering process while Efrain narrates with his philosophy and nightmares. This isn't the first documentary I've watched which takes the viewer inside a slaughterhouse; but it is the most visually impressionistic and graphic. It is hard to watch this film and not decide to go vegetarian. But for all the film's effectiveness and verité, I was lulled to sleep the first time around by the monotonous soundtrack and the hard-to-take visuals.
Ondine's Curse (CCHS) is a rare and incurable congenital disease where a person is born with a kind of serious sleep apnea where breathing just stops totally when sleep starts. A baby born with this problem is on a ventilator during sleep for the rest of its life, or it dies.
Polish director Tomasz Sliwinski documented his own son Leo's first year of life as he and his wife learned to cope with the problems (physical and mental) of caring for such a needy child. Yet the adorable boy clung to life, and the parents adjusted. This is an often disturbing, occasionally exhilarating, at times difficult to watch, and ultimately hopeful short doc which shows a profoundly moving aspect of human nature at its lowest ebb and highest high.
Marianna Palka is an actress and filmmaker whose father contracted Huntington's Disease when she was 8. This horrendous, so far incurable genetic disease (symptomatically akin to Parkinson's combined with Alzheimer's) is passed on to 50% of the progeny of people who have the disease. The disease usually doesn't appear until mid-life; but now there is a test for the gene which causes the eventual sickness. Palka's sister and cousin tested positive; and she has decided to get the results of her test on camera at age 33.
This documentary short starts out with a dinner party with several friends the night before the test results were available. The interesting and literate conversation centers around Palka's upcoming reveal. Then the film transitions to the doctor's office the next morning. One can only admire Palka's courage in making the decision to go public with such a private health concern. And Lucy Walker has made a touching, emotionally resonant and concise record of this milestone in Palka's life.
Kehinde Wiley is a famed representational painter/artist who creates gigantic portraits of African-American men against florid backgrounds. His method is to photograph subjects that he finds on the streets of New York, and later pose them in costume and in scenes reminiscent of great past masterpieces, then meticulously create a new painting out of disparate elements.
This documentary short shows a transition in Wiley's method, where for the first time he is using African-American women to create his art pieces. We witness Wiley's fascinating methodology: from choosing the women, to exploring the displays at the Louvre for inspiration, to creating the costumes in collaboration with the House of Givenchy, to creating the paintings at his Beijing atelier, to the culmination of the "Economy of Grace" exhibition of the new works. I had never heard of Wiley before; but this all-too-short documentary made me want to see a whole lot more of his incredibly meticulous art.
One of eight semi-finalist films submitted for the 2014 Oscar short documentary. Joanna was a Polish wife and mother who produced a much-read blog illustrating her life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. This film is an impressionistic distillation of scenes from her everyday life, especially how she prepared her 8-year old son for her imminent death. Since I hadn't read Joanna's blog, it took me a while to figure out what was happening, as the film spends very little time at exposition and explanation, just cutting together several more or less touching scenes in chronological order. I felt the boy's love and pain throughout the film; but Joanna herself remained at some emotional remove.
One of eight semi-finalists for 2014 Oscar nominated short documentary. This is a well edited film which shows several phone conversations where distressed veterans are calling the national suicide crisis help line offices in New York state (veterans are told to press the number one to get help specific to veterans.) The conversations are one-sided...we only hear the crisis line aide, and the identity of the callers is never disclosed. Still, most of the calls are gut wrenchingly dramatic. All of these help-line volunteers are quite skilled and empathetic; and one can't help but admire the job they are doing.
The film makes clear that more veterans have committed suicide since 2001 than have died in all the wars we've fought since. I wonder if Chaney and Bush considered this factor when they naively committed this country to their wars. But to be fair, these veterans are from other wars, too: specifically in a couple of cases shown in this film from Viet Nam and Lebanon. But the preponderance of the calls are from veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is a film about a miserable old lady who spent years in a loveless marriage and then became estranged from her only son. Sounds like a chore to watch. Yet this coldly analytical character study of life in general in this seaside Maine village resonates with surprising affect. That is mainly due to the impeccable casting, especially Frances McDormand in the title role...but that's not to slight the other actors including Richard Jenkins, Bill Murray and John Gallagher, Jr. All these characters are so intriguingly complex that I'll probably end up reading the Pulitzer Prize winning source novel to find out more about them.
Clever premise for a Disney animation, with a vaguely Eurasian super-nerd boy hero and his lovable nurse robot battling evil in the mash-up futuristic city of San Fransokyo. If the plot seemed too cookie-cutter predictable, it's probably because I'm a jaded septuagenarian who has seen this story played out hundreds of times. But at least it gave me something to talk about with my 6-year old cousin at Thanksgiving dinner. It was his all-time favorite movie; and I understand that completely.
I've long been an admirer of J. M. W. Turner's pre-Impressionist sea and landscapes; but until this biofilm covering the last 26 years of Turner's life I had little (or no) knowledge of the man himself. Hyphenate Mike Leigh, his crew, and his intrepid troupe of character actors (including a career high achievement for Timothy Spall as Turner) have created whole cloth the world of Turner's mid-19th century English art scene with obsessive fidelity.
In terms of production design and cinematography, this film is a superlative achievement. There are moments of sheer natural beauty captured digitally (this is one gorgeous film not originally shot on film), that are faithful representations of what the real Mr. Turner must have seen with his own eyes. But let's not forget that this is a biopic; and Turner was a particularly cantankerous and idiosyncratic old coot whose genius was recognized in his time by the Academy. That limits the drama of an impecunious artist's life; but Leigh makes up for it by opening up the film's purview to include the worlds of the contemporary nobility in addition to the curious double life that Turner lived with a secret wife removed from his public persona.
At times this immersion in the reality of the period is heavy slogging. Turner wasn't a very likable character; and urban England in the 1840s wasn't a pleasant environment (although the countryside and seashores that Turner painted were and are still lovely.) But not since Kubrick's Barry Lyndon has an English period film looked so realistic down to the last detail of organic lighting and lived in sets. One expects this from Mike Leigh's obsessive creative process...and one isn't disappointed.
Director Mahdi Fleifel was born in the south Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp Ain el-Helweh. When he was young, his parents escaped to Dubai and soon settled in Denmark where he grew up nostalgic for the camp. He followed his videography obsessed father in later years when he would periodically return to visit the camp and his grandfather, great-uncle and best friend who stayed behind. Mahdi shot professional quality video on each of his visits, and this documentary is the result of cutting together that material.
The film is a personal account, narrated by the director; but it is also a dispiriting view of the results of 65 years of exile on these Palestinians. They view the world that is not theirs on television, especially every four years when they take sides in the World Cup series. But as the years pass, their passion has steeped away (at least for Mahdi's friends and relatives.) It is enlightening and also depressing to watch this film.
Thus ends my 134 documentary film journey through this year's Academy documentary submissions. I'm now ready to turn in my nomination ballot. This has certainly been an extraordinary year for the non-fiction film. One might even say this is a Golden Age for these films...probably because technology has made the documentary easier to shoot and enabled audiences to find them. I was only tempted once to turn off one of the films...they were that fine on average.
There have been so many documentaries recently about the Arab Spring and various struggles against totalitarian dictatorships in the world today that it is easy to watch just another similar film with complacency. But the power of motion pictures is that it is still possible to make an impact by sheer film making skill...by featuring undeniable images (so-called "smoking guns") with the ability to change minds and affect change.
This film personalizes this decade's freedom movements by telling three different stories...of a man who lost his American born son in the Libyan revolution against Gaddafi. Of two protestors still facing heavy odds in Syria fighting both the Assad government and ISIS. And primarily of a family (two sisters and their father) persecuted ruthlessly on the Gulf island of Bahrain for peacefully protesting their government's human rights abuses. All of this is put in perspective by showing graphics and illustrations of past struggles: the American revolution, black slavery and civil rights, Burma, South Africa, China etc., etc., etc. until I weep for the human race. Except I fear that I personally have become desensitized to it all by the sheer number of similar documentaries that I've watched this year. That takes nothing away from the powerful message this film imparts. This is yet another film that cries out to be watched.
Our bodies, like the earth's surface, are made up mostly of water. This mainly visual documentary explores man's relationship with water worldwide. It's all rather unscripted and seemingly randomly put together (the end credits state that the shooting ratio was 180 to 1). This translates to 270 hours of original footage from places as far flung and differentiated as California's drought impacted Imperial and Owens valleys and the drying up of the Ogalala aquifer in the U.S. heartland; China's gigantic hydroelectric dam projects, ancient rice paddies and abalone farms; India's 30,000,000 people strong ritual bathing in the Ganges; British Columbia's wild rivers; and climate research in Greenland and Iceland. These are only a small sample of the ambitious breadth of material relating to water that the film makers shot and collected.
The visuals are stunningly beautiful and often terrifying in their implication that man's tampering with nature is clearly affecting the planet's ecology. The film makers don't editorialize in any obvious way; but the visuals speak for themselves.
Raphael Lemkin was a Polish born Jewish lawyer whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust. He coined the term "genocide" and after emigrating to the U.S. before WWII he worked tirelessly until his death in 1959 to have genocide declared illegal under international law. His argument was to ask why killing millions of people was less a punishable crime than killing one person.
This documentary uses Lemkin's life story as a metaphor for its examination of the 20th and 21st century genocides...Armenians, Jews, Bosnians, Rwandians, and the current crisis in Darfur, where Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir is still committing heinous crimes against humanity with no consequences. The film centers on the struggles against genocides which are being fought now in the United Nations and the World Court through the efforts of three contemporaries: Samantha Powers (author and U.S. delegate the the U.N.), Luis Marino Ocampo (prosecutor of genocidal criminals at the World Court), and Benjamin Farencz (prosecutor at the Nürenberg Nazi trials and still tireless crusader for justice for the oppressed refugees from genocides.)
The film uses artistic graphics to punctuate its relentlessly stated message: that genocide is apparently an inevitable part of human nature that we humans seem incapable of eradicating. And "relentless" is the prevailing impression of the film...leaving this viewer feeling bereft and hopeless. That is a tribute to its effectiveness as a cautionary documentary...but hardly one that is easy to watch.
Starting on August 1, 1944, while the Russians waited across the Vistula River, the people of Warsaw fought a protracted battle of liberation from the Nazis. Up to 200,000 civilians died in the 63 days of destruction and horror . However, during the uprising an ad hoc Polish ministry of propaganda sent cameramen out into the maelstrom; and approximately 8 hours of silent B&W footage was eventually found intact. The Museum of the Warsaw Uprising backed the production of this amazing documentary, which is an 87 minute hybrid film using actual footage edited into a story worthy of a fictional war epic.
The technical achievement itself is amazing. The footage was colorized, using state-of-the-art computerization techniques. A sound track of incredible veracity was made by hiring skilled lip readers and actors to replicate the actual on-screen dialog; and experts performed some of the best Foley sound effects editing and mixing ever done for a film. And honestly, the soundtrack was so realistic that after the film I had to check to see if there was a sound recorder at work back in 1944. I knew with my brain that the film must have been shot MOS (technical movie speak for mitt out sound); but I couldn't actually KNOW the film was shot MOS the soundtrack was so flawless.
However, I believe to make the film play more dramatic, the film makers provided an addition to the soundtrack: actors playing the roles of cinematographer brothers shooting the footage, and reading letters to and from their family describing the scenes. For me this was an unfortunate choice, and detracted somewhat from the startling realism of the documentary. However, it did have the intended effect of personalizing the narrative. One could also complain about the fake colorization and fake effects soundtrack...but those so clearly added value and impact to the original footage that the flawless technical achievement became an unexpected filmic triumph.
The Virunga is a Congolese National Park, the last refuge for mountain gorillas and other animals of the Savanna. The entire area of central Africa has traditionally been the target of European exploitation of its plentiful natural resources. And recently the Virunga has been under siege by refugees from genocide, by a terribly destructive civil war, and by a (purportedly) ruthless British corporation, Soco, determined to drill for oil in the Lake Edwards region of the Park by using bribery and intimidation. At least that is the point of view of this alternately muckraking and environmentally sensitive documentary.
The film made little pretense at even-handedness (although to be fair, at the end it did present in stark titles the supposed case of the opposition, which was not very convincing.) And technically it is all over the place, with an ongoing confusion of people identifications and motivations. However, rarely has a film aroused my sense of activism as much as this film did with its sequences of adorable young orphan gorillas and the heroic park rangers under deadly siege who are trying to protect the park. My go-to attitude about this sort of thing is skepticism...but there were smoking guns in this film which simply aroused a strong feeling that Something Ought To Be Done! For me that is the highest ideal of advocacy documentary film making.
Back in 2010, Emilio Estevez directed a film starring his father Martin Sheen called The Way, about a man who undertook the 800km spiritual walking trip called "The Camino de Santiago." Up to that point I had never even heard of this Catholic (and now more universal) ritual pilgrimage. But after watching that film I couldn't help but feel that in some imaginary life I would like to undertake this trip while I'm still in my 70s and ambulatory. Not that I expect that I ever will.
But that brings us to this beautiful and insightful documentary, which focuses on various pilgrims traveling the Camino from Somport, France to Santiago, Spain (and even beyond to Finisterre.) We meet a spiritual young French woman and her 5-year old son, a middle-age Danish woman who strikes up a companionship on the road with a younger Canadian man, another young man - a Spaniard with foot blisters, a determined Brazilian woman, and three miscellaneous elders who have various difficulties with the rigors of the road trip. The film takes us through some beautifully photographed, glorious countryside as we get to know these people and experience their pain and triumphs.
The film crosscuts all these stories chronologically and quite expertly. By necessity, the film is episodic and some of the stories told are more interesting than others. Perhaps the film might have been helped by pruning out a couple of the episodes. However, I've had a day or so to contemplate the lasting peaceful effect that this documentary had on this agnostic Jew; and I've raised my rating a half-point. I still think I may try the Camino before I die.
This documentary covers 8 months in the lives of a Romanian family. The seven kids have been left to their own devices when their mother was away working as a domestic in Italy. The eldest boy is 17...and he seems to spend most of his time playing video games. The youngest boy is about 6 or 7 (the film is vague about things like this.) But the mainstay of the family is 14-year old Georgiana (who turns 15 during the film). She does the cooking and generally plays the role of mom surrogate. The children remain in touch with mom through occasional Skype video chats and telephone calls. However, these cute, smart kids really do function as a family...they go to school, handle finances, keep their apartment spotless and manage to remain out of the hands of Children's Services.
The film is shot cinema verité style: utilizing a totally non-interactive camera which is like a fly on the wall. The activities start in the dead of winter; and the mother tells the kids by phone that she'll be home in August (thus the title.) It's all rather feel-good and very low-key, with (thankfully) little drama, although one keeps waiting for disaster to occur. I'm not a big fan of verité filmmaking that offers no attempt at editorializing or expressing a point of view. But I have to admit that this charming family and the general dilemma of fatherless families where the mother has to go abroad to support the family is a subject worth examining.
In 2005 there was an unforgettable documentary called Street Fight which told the story of a young black activist named Cory Booker who was running for Mayor of Newark. He was a charismatic, liberal, novice politician with important ideas and ideals; and the film made the viewer care about this man. Of course Booker went on to become a presence on the national scene after this film.
In 2012, in the city of Stockton, CA (the largest city up to that point to declare bankruptcy and a city with the reputation as a murder capitol) Michael Tubbs, a 22-year old black Stanford graduate, ran a similar campaign for the Stockton city council - representing the impoverished, mainly segregated 6th district. However, because all council members are elected in that city at large, he had to raise enough money to campaign throughout the entire city to beat the Republican incumbent.
This stirring, fascinating documentary shows how a grass-roots political contest worked. But even more, it presented the possible appearance onto a larger political stage of a smart, personable young black politician with admirable ideals. I hadn't heard about this campaign, and I'm not going to venture a spoiler about the outcome of that 2012 election. But as a viewer I was intrigued and encouraged.
Thomas Keating was a Yale educated abbot of a Benedictine monastery. Now elderly, he is an outspoken Catholic philosopher. This documentary tells his story, mostly through his own words and example. For me, this was a true snooze fest. Maybe it is just because I have little interest in spiritual discussions. But honestly, I tried to watch and understand what this undoubtedly good man had to say...and I kept falling asleep, lulled by the drone of his voice and the message that wasn't getting through.
What a strange, compelling story. Of course I was aware at the time of the huge celebrity media scandal involving ultra-rich John du Pont. And I recall watching the '84 Olympics and remember the Schultz brothers competing as wrestlers. But I didn't pay much attention to how they all eventually connected. There are still facets of this "true" story, especially motivations, that remain murky for me (and probably for the screen writers, too.) Steve Carell gives a startling performance, one that would be hard to predict from his previous work. And Channing Tatum shows for him unprecedented physical commitment to his wrestler role. The film dragged for me in the mid-section...it could have been a half-hour shorter and still have had the same impact. But that's a personal quibble...this is committed film making of a high order.
Positive: Alan Turing as world class genius, innovative pioneer of the digital age and gay martyr are subjects well worth telling.
Negative: For my money it was done better in the more cerebral 1996 drama Breaking the Code.
This film can't quite decide what genre it is: biopic? costume drama? war story? spy thriller? tragic gay love story? mad scientist melodrama? It's all of these mashed up in a script which randomly intercuts three different eras of Turing's life. The acting, production design, period authenticity are all impeccable. However, I never quite connected emotionally to the film and these characters.
Brazilian artist (sculptor and photographer) Vik Munitz became obsessed with the sphere...especially as it applies to the soccer ball. His objective for an art project was to construct in Mexico City's Aztec stadium a gigantic 3D representation (on a 2D plane) of a soccer ball using 10,000 specially designed B&W soccer balls, and then upscale the piece to 20,000 balls on a field in his native Rio de Janeiro. What he ends up with is a huge surrealist sculpture that can only best be viewed by helicopter (I believe the film's title is a play on words on Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe").
The documentary contains an interesting history of the sphere and deconstructs the actual soccer ball in the context of its manufacture and use. For a film that is ostensibly about soccer, it doesn't actually have much soccer content. Rather this is a film about an artist obsessed with a huge project which involves many participants and a great deal of planning to bring off. The film goes off on tangents and seems somewhat unfocused at times; but the sheer magnitude of Munitz's ambitious project makes for an interesting film.
Starting in the late 1980s a serial killer who preyed on dozens and maybe hundreds of black prostitutes in South Los Angeles was operating virtually in secret. I was living in L.A., and until 2008 there was nary a peep in the media about such a momentous killing spree. Finally in 2010, aided by DNA evidence, a local resident Lonnie Franklin was arrested. However, even four years later he resides in jail untried for his crimes.
In this documentary, intrepid British film maker and personally involved narrator Nick Bloomfield and his cameraman plied the streets of South Central to find out why it took the authorities so long to solve the case, and to interview many of the locals, residents and streetwalkers and eventually even Franklin's grown son himself for much needed background. This is fascinating stuff, getting right down into the sordid underbelly of a Los Angeles that I knew very well existed, but have had no personal experience of. It is also a case of mismanaged police work and media dereliction which defies belief.
I respect Broomfield for his documentary method of becoming so personally involved on camera with his subjects. In this case just being white interlopers in that milieu imparted a feeling of peril and danger which came through the screen. But Bloomfield got his story despite everything, getting admissions and testimony that one feels even the police missed. Still, this is an unfinished story until Franklin is tried and convicted.
This documentary traces the political history of Nigeria through decades of civil strife and military dictatorship. It does this by focusing on a woman: Harvard educated Hafsat Abiola, high caste daughter of the first freely elected President (but in an election soon annulled by the military) and his martyred, politically active 2nd wife.
The film emphasizes "women power" in the struggle for Nigerian freedom. After the deaths of her parents, Ms. Abiola could have remained peacefully in Belgium with her husband and children; but instead she returned to her country as a politician to rally women to the cause of free elections and an end to male dominated corruption. This was a well-meaning and informative film about the realities of African politics; but by narrowing the focus to a single family it lost for me some relevance.
During the 1960s and stretching into the '70s, Esquire magazine overcame its "men's magazine" Depression era beginnings, and became an important and culturally significant literary and graphic general magazine. I know this first hand because for that period of my life I was a passionate subscriber and reader. What I didn't know at the time was the backstory - how a Southern gentleman by the name of Harold Hayes became editor and molded the magazine to his aesthetic.
Hayes left the magazine in 1973; and it was never the same. Now his son Tom has made a documentary about those heady Esquire days that he witnessed first hand as a boy (but with little comprehension at the time). There have been several documentary films lately from sons or daughters extolling the achievements of their parents. However few have been made with such a film maker's eye. Utilizing interviews to provide context along with contemporary footage and generous representations of the magazine's graphics, director Hayes has constructed a fascinating, chronological depiction of the processes, and particularly the challenges, that signified the golden era of this magazine. Perhaps just because I had such a personal involvement with the magazine back then, I found this documentary to be a particularly relevant and enlightening film about our cultural history.
Sebastião Salgado has devoted most of his life to documenting with amazing B&W photographs some of the worst (and best) that humanity offered in the second half of the 20th Century. He has documented people stories on every continent: workers around the world, Latin Americans, the wartime victims in Rwanda, Congo, the Sahil, the former Yugoslavia et. al. He has also done spectacular nature photography, and published massive books illustrating his life's work, co-authored with his wife.
Documentarian Wim Wenders, along with Salgado's now grown-up son Juliano, tell the story of this great photographer, with copious examples of his photographs accompanied by explanatory narration by Salgado himself...along with films shot by the son covering many of his father's expeditions to obtain the photographs. But the real beating heart of this documentary is the moving story of how Salgado (born in a farming family in drought stricken Brazil) has become a 21st Century environmental activist in this own country by supporting the planting of millions of trees on his old family farm and turning it over to the state to become a national park.
This is one documentary that is both a record of an extraordinary life of achievement and an artistic triumph in itself.
A famous movie star of a certain age (still lovely Juliette Binoche) contemplates returning to her first youthful stage and film production twenty years later, playing the role of the older woman co-star to the young starlet (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is cast in her original role. Aided by intelligent, super-competent personal assistant Kristen Stewart, she navigates the shoals of modern day paparazzi culture, while living the life of an established star in her Swiss alpine retreat.
Director Assayas showcases the extraordinary physical beauty of his Alpine locations, while also presenting a somewhat talky version of modern international celebrity culture in action. It's an intriguing glimpse into the life of the rich and famous...but for my money only minor Assayas in terms of relevance and enjoyment.
This documentary tells the story of a group of rural Costa Rican women who formed a successful collective to grow, process and distribute coffee beans when the men of the area left to find better paying work. It plays like a feminist commercial for their brand: how the women fought against prejudice, fire and the elements to achieve financial success. But it is also an interesting and informative illustration of the processes involved in getting coffee beans from the growers to the markets.
This informative documentary covers the modern history over the past 50 plus years of the women's liberation movement. Basically the way it does this is by inter-cutting in roughly chronological order archival footage of speechifying by angry and aroused feminist leaders from the 1960s and 1970s with interviews today with the same people, older and still wise. The result is a big-head-interview heavy documentary - but one structured so well by contrasting the "then" with the "now" that it plays like an especially relevant history lesson.
It's not surprising that such an approach emphasizes the positives of the achievements over the years (lesbian rights, abortion legalization, improved rape laws) and mostly ignores the failures (e.g. the narrowly failed Equal Rights Amendment). But to be fair, the film doesn't ignore the younger generation of activists, while also putting into perspective the mostly forgotten achievements of the original Suffragettes. It is comprehensive and very women-centric, which is its strength as an advocacy documentary. But for me, the editorial slant seemed somewhat out-of-balance.
A corrupt S. Korean police detective hits a pedestrian on a dark road, and makes the fatal decision to try to cover up his hit-and-run accident. That sets in motion a series of unlikely events for the next day in the cop's life as the dead body is part of a more complex scheme involving still more crooked cops, drugs and blackmail. It's all a little over-the-top for my tastes, with some developments that seem almost supernaturally unlikely. But it's one of those audience pleasing thrillers that work if one is willing to go with its ridiculous plot. I wasn't.
Gita Weinrauch was a child in 1940 when, just before her family was to be deported from their Vienna home to Dachau, her parents received departure visas for her immediate family. Gita, her two older brothers and her parents escaped to the United States. However her parents, and later herself, remained in touch with those in her extended family that were less fortunate...and eventually she and her camera equipped husband embarked on a lengthy journey taking them to Europe to film her family's relationship with the Holocaust. There is much of innate interest in this documentary, which is mostly made up of interviews Weinrauch had with survivors, politicians and scholars. She also reads extensive translations of letters that her family received from those long dead, at least before communications were terminated by the war. However, the film making is so amateurish and rudimentary, with confusing editing, plus poor visuals and sound quality, that the film doesn't quite meet the standards for a theatrical release.
Mary Bee is a 31-year old spinster lady, a relatively successful farmer surviving on her own in hard scrabble, pre-Civil War Nebraska Territory. When three of the local wives go crazy from their difficult lives, Mary Bee volunteers to take them literally captive on the long journey east to civilization across the Missouri River into Iowa. She eventually hooks up with a drifter, George Briggs, and convinces him to accompany her on the trek. That is the set-up for this revisionist Western, where the pioneers are failing and the trajectory is returning back east.
Director Tommy Lee Jones plays Briggs with his usual vivid, rebellious persona, although by the final scenes I couldn't quite understand the character's personality arc. For me the problem was the casting of Hillery Swank in the central role of Mary Bee. That character is twice told by prospective suitors that she is "too bossy and too plain" to be marriageable, despite her seeming ability to thrive at the pioneer life. But no matter how dressed down she is made to be, Swank just can't pull off "plain." Despite that flaw, the film is gorgeously shot, mostly on wide-screen 35mm film that uses the locations to great advantage...and quite well acted by the large supporting cast (including Meryl Streep who shows up late in the game.) However, the film is such an emotional downer that I had trouble digesting the plot.
A Benedictine monastery in downtown Newark runs an effective prep school which enrolls many live-in black students from local, deprived homes. Utilizing educational techniques first codified by St. Benedict in 6th Century Italy as "The Rules," the school sends most of these boys to college where they graduate in high numbers...despite the disintegration of society in their home city. This documentary examines the teachers, students and the philosophy behind their successful example. This is one of those films with an admirable message; but it just somehow failed to engage me.
In this era of the Affordable Care Act, there are still areas of the world and the U.S. that are poorly served by the medical profession. Into this breach an organization called "Remote Area Medical" sends a group of doctors and dentists and their equipment to rural areas in order to provide free service to the medically deprived populace. This documentary covers one weekend in the Appalachian hills of Tennessee, where such a medical event occurred.
The action starts each morning at 3:30AM when tickets are given out to those who have been waiting in line for many hours. Then precisely at 6AM the gates open, and the filmmakers use interviews with doctors and patients and tours of the facilities (in this case they utilized the entire Bristol Motor Speedway) to enable the audience to witness and in a way participate in the complex event. It's all very uplifting and positive; but there is also the impression that something is still very much screwed up about our health care system that so many people are in such desperate need of unavailable, affordable medical attention.
First of all the title of this film is Black or White. I wonder if they are ever going to change it in the database? No matter. The film will get a release under its real title...and it is a doozy of a film, well written (based on real events in writer-director Mike Bender's life), and beautifully acted.
It's a sensitive, emotionally truthful, film about a custody fight for a feisty, mixed race 8-year old girl. Extremely timely for 2014, the film is a variation on the Kramer vs. Kramer story, only the court battle is between a white grandfather and a black grandmother. The film gives its star Kevin Costner a memorable courtroom speech, and provides Olivia Spenser with another Oscar caliber role. Of course, just because it is a Kevin Costner film it probably won't leak over into the younger demographic that might really appreciate this film. Too grown up a movie. And gasp!, they used the "N" word! So that lets everybody else out. Too bad. This wonderful, timely film deserves to find an audience somewhere, somehow.
I'm not a hockey fan; but this documentary based mostly on the reminiscences of the great Soviet (and later NHL) defenseman Slava Fetisov is both entertaining and informative. I'll admit that the hockey part escaped my interest...but the people and political aspects of the film were fascinating. Director Polsky shows here a deft talent at getting people to talk, for the most part, about behind the scenes stuff that might well have remained hidden; but what truly makes the film work is Fetisov's feisty humor and iconoclastic heroism.
There have been a plethora of documentaries recently that bash "big oil," including anti-fracking tracts and films which graphically show all the detriments to the economy and environment that our addiction to fossil fuels entail. Add to the mix this powerful film which calls for the people to demand choice of fuels (ethanol, methanol, natural gas, electricity or combinations thereof) at the pump to break the anti-competitive monopoly of big oil.
According to this film (and I tend to believe its claims), the technology to enable all modern automobiles to immediately utilize fuel mixtures is available today with software modifications, although lobbyists and PR firms are succeeding in influencing the passing of bad laws and fomenting disinformation (e.g. that manufacturing biofuels leads to food shortages, a big lie). The film shows clearly, with informative graphics and effectively written narration by Justin Bateman, that all that is needed to effectuate change is the dissemination of such knowledge and the will of the people to demand alternatives to gasoline. Chances are that apathy and inertia will stop progress in its tracks and keep the oil monopolists in business forever...but not for the lack of trying to get the message across by such committed film makers as the Tickells.
This documentary covers in detail the plight of battered women and the shelters and committed women who help them escape from their abusers. As the film makes clear, the legal system is not geared to protecting the women...there's a built in traditional bias that subtly protects all but the most destructive batterers. This is an important subject, sensitively done by telling the stories of a few women in North Carolina. But the film is told totally from the women's point of view...not that any sort of balance is needed when the evidence of criminal activity is so obvious. But, personally, I felt the film was somehow incomplete and hard to watch.
Not since the famed garage where Jobs and Woz developed the Apple personal computer has a technological invention engendered such a group of nerdy start-up companies as the 3D printer. That is the subject of this very entertaining documentary about four such enterprises...with an emphasis on two companies devoted to making a desk-top version, MakerBot and Formlabs, and the vastly disparate set of entrepreneurs and tech wizards that started and ran these companies.
The filmmakers apparently had amazing access to the inner workings and infighting within these two companies as they developed and marketed their respective products. And except for a brief detour into the controversy surrounding the anarchists who were determined to use the technology to make home-made plastic guns, the film is a razor sharp cautionary tale reflecting the inherent incompatibility of commerce and altruism. I was intrigued by how much I ended up rooting for the naive, super-smart nerds to win out over the greedy capitalists. That is a tribute to the film makers' excellent job of covering this particular tech war.
American citizen, Matt Van Dyke became a newsworthy personality when he volunteered to fight in the 2011 Libyan insurrection against Gaddafi and was captured and spent 5 1/2 months in a Libyan prison. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. In 2006 at age 26, he set out by motorcycle to prove his manhood by touring Arab countries with a video camera...ending up in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - embedding himself as a semi-official war correspondent with American troops. On his travels he met a Libyan hippie; and when the Arab spring happened and the Libyan insurrection began, despite (or maybe because of) his OCD, he was off to fight, joining his friend and leaving behind his girlfriend and family.
This self-aggrandizing narcissist became the subject of a documentary based largely on video footage that Van Dyke himself shot. Some portions, namely the time Van Dyke spent in prison is shown with animation and voice over; but most of the material is a skillful edit of Van Dyke's own footage: what amounts to selfies in motion. However, the film does pay off as a real-life character study and a late blooming coming-of-age story of an interesting, if messed up guy. At times, especially when Van Dyke is being interviewed on camera by director Currey, his out of control ego and inflated self-importance is humorous, which might be a deliberate choice by the director to point up some of the absurdities of Van Dyke's activities. Still, the war footage is impressive, no matter how screwed up the cinematographer was.
In the early 1980s Southwest Africa was a mess. South Africa was under worldwide sanctions because of Apartheid, while they occupied neighboring Namibia. Angola was undergoing a ruthless civil war with the Angolan government aided by Cuban soldiers fighting on one side against insurgents aided by South Africa on the other.
According to this fascinating documentary, behind the scenes a mysterious French businessman who was known by the code name "Monsieur Jacques" (his real name was Jean-Yves Ollivier) managed to be a go-between facilitator, trusted by both sides. The negotiations he helped set up involved many governments, including the U.S., France, Cuba, Republic of Congo, Mozambique and South Africa. Ultimately these meetings led to Namibian independence, end of hostilities and Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola, and eventually the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid. However, Ollivier's participation in all these events was apparently kept secret until now.
This is one of those rare documentaries that actually seem to be disclosing for the first time history making events involving high level realpolitik. The film achieves this by a dryly factual, well edited retelling of the complex series of negotiations through many revealing interviews and news footage from the time. The revelations are so startling, with disclosures of secret negotiations worthy of a le Carré novel, that it was literally hard to believe some of the claims. However, the central character, Ollivier himself, is presented in this film so personally modest and believable, that I was convinced of the veracity of his historical role.
In the wake of an injured pelican stopping traffic on the Golden Gate bridge before being rescued and sent to a bird rehabilitation center, filmmaker Judy Irving became obsessed with California pelicans and their oft endangered plight and lifestyles. This documentary is a personalized journey of discovery, with wall-to-wall narration of Irving's quest for knowledge about the birds. She travels to Baja and the picturesque Channel Islands to film them in their natural environment; but she also follows two injured pelicans which are taken on different paths to recovery. The film is interesting, but slight...at times more about the filmmaker than the birds. But I did learn a lot about pelicans, and found myself caring for the birds more than I expected to.
The University of California Berkeley owns several acres of green farmland in the middle of the East Bay metropolitan area, partially devoted to corn research, mostly lying fallow. In order to balance budgets, the Regents moved to develop this land: planning on building houses and a shopping mall. This documentary covers the student revolt that happened in 2012 when a group of about 200 activists calling themselves Occupy the Farm started to grow crops on the land despite the University's opposition and escalating police action to remove them from the land.
I was reminded of the much larger "People's Park" student revolt in 1969, although the film doesn't make a direct comparison. Also, it was hard not to compare this pro-Green, grow-your-own movement to a similar one that took place in 2008 in East Los Angeles which was covered in the film The Garden. This version of Occupy lacked charismatic leaders; and the film never quite achieved the scope it intended. But somehow the outcome of this documentary managed to be a dramatic and uplifting example of a kind of hopeful progressive victory anyway.
Steve is a troubled ADHD teenager, recently released from boarding school for violent behavior and into the care of his single mother. He's a handful...but a neighbor lady, an out-of-work teacher, offers to help tend and school the boy while the mother ekes out a living. That is the setup for another remarkable film by the young Wunderkind Canadian director Xavier Dolan. The actors are amazing: young Antoine-Olivier Pilon as hyperactive Steve, along with Dolan regulars Anne Dorval as his set-upon mother and Suzanne Clément as the neighbor lady. And the story is particularly suited to Dolan's inventive visual style: especially eccentric vertical framing and brilliant montage editing. The film might have been a tad too emotionally over-the-top; but Dolan makes us care about his unsympathetic characters.
Last year, the biographical documentary Hawking seemed to show everything there was to disclose about the life and living processes of the brilliant ALS surviving physicist, Steven Hawking. However, this new biopic with actors, based on a book by Hawking's ex-wife and caretaker Jane, adds a deeply moving personal love story to the factual documentary...aided by an amazingly convincing central performance by Eddie Redmayne. The film follows a traditional biopic chronology; but in this case the relentless disease and the clever wit and steadfastness of the central couple elevates the story. Frankly, I was in tears for much of the last 1/3 of the film...honestly earned tears, too, since the script was so tight and literate. Director Marsh cut his teeth making documentaries; and for long stretches of this film I felt I was watching a particularly revealing documentary. Nice job all around.
Honestly, the story lost me about the time the intrepid survey crew entered the worm-hole. In his inimitable fashion, Nolan's dense treatment of the relativistic physics and ecological backstory seemed for me to be deliberately confusing. However as a big-screen experience, with earthshaking sound and convincing (if slightly old-fashioned) special effects, the film still worked. I think a second viewing might be useful; but I have no desire to go through this cinematic trial again.
In the waning days of WWII, allied soldier-cameramen took some incredibly graphic footage of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The material was meant to be turned into a documentary called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey by producer Stanley Bernstein with some help from Alfred HItchcock. But the documentary was never finished; and the startling, horrifying, unimpeachably real Holocaust footage remained unseen until this new documentary completed the original compilation. Every Holocaust denier should be strapped down and forced to watch this film. Just the fact that such contemporary B&W and color footage actually exists is newsworthy; but this documentary with its dry retelling and graphic illustrations of the monstrous atrocities is in a class by itself.
This excellent issue oriented documentary uses the visual metaphor of the magician who uses sleight-of-hand and misdirection to fool the audience (his on screen magician is quite good.) The film then goes on to compare this prestidigitation to the tactics of corporations, think tanks and public relations firms, which are sowing confusion in the populace by misdirection and outright lying about global warming (and before that tobacco, pesticides etc.) The film presents with graphics, film clips and interviews a series of several "smoking guns:" absolutely convincing proof that various conspiratorial entities are working against the common good. Among the spate of documentaries lately that focus on the dangers of global warming, this is one of the best and most effective at making its dire point. It is a must-see for every thinking American.
The eponymous Magician is none other than Orson Welles. This entertaining documentary covers his life and work...although mostly told through interviews with a few family members, biographers, collaborators and acquaintances (Welles himself shows up sporadically in old archived footage, although his actual persona remains elusive.)
But the meat of the film are the many incredibly wonderful sequence highlights from his work, many from unreleased and unfinished films that I had never seen before. The evidence of his directorial and acting genius is everywhere; but now I'm especially anxious to one day watch his masterpiece based on Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight, and the Kafkaesque box office failure with Anthony Perkins and Jeanne Moreau, The Trial. If nothing else, this film serves as a reminder that Welles was arguably the founder of the "indie film" movement; and like many pioneers he was mostly squashed by the entrenched studio and exhibition establishment.
After 20 years as an embedded war correspondent and journalist, and the death in Libya of his good friend and oft time collaborator Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger returned to the U.S. and made a documentary about his personal existential crisis. He, accompanied by Brendan O’Bryne and Dave Roels (veterans that Junger befriended while making his award-winning Afghani war doc Restrepo), fellow combat journalist Guillermo Cerverat and one smart dog, embarked on a months long hiking trip following the rails northward from Washington D.C. in search of the American dream that was worth risking death for. The trip involved meeting up with people on the way and having illuminating discussions among themselves about the ways of the warrior and the processes of re-integrating into normal life. All were shot by an invisible cameraman (the excellent Rudy). Perhaps the film is a tad self-indulgent; but the insights uncovered here are vital and important.
In the wake of 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf, what has changed? This documentary starts with some incredible home videos of life on the oil rig before the explosion and segues to ecological disaster, the eventual clean-up and the activities of the responsible parties (Transocean and British Petroleum) afterwards. The film focuses on what happens to two of the survivors. But the ultimate message is that nothing has changed: the monetary settlements have been mostly vapor, no laws and regulations have been changed, and more and more deep water drilling is still ongoing in the Gulf due to our society's continuing addiction to oil. This is an important message; but unfortunately the message is obscured by a confusing and frankly boring editorial schema.
Let's pretend for a moment that All the President's Men was a documentary following Woodward and Bernstein in real time as they contacted, met and discussed with camera rolling the Watergate scandal with the original whistleblower, Deep Throat. Now shift that perspective to 2013 and cast Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskall in the reporters' roles, Edward Snowden (codename "Citizenfour") as Deep Throat, and Laura Poitras as the invisible filmmaker and you have the ingredients for a documentary every bit as intriguing and history making as the finest of Hollywood thrillers.
Whatever one's politics are, whatever one thinks of Ed Snowden (whistleblower hero? traitor? something in between?), this is still fascinating, world-shaking stuff told with the immediacy of history happening before the viewer's eyes. Snowden is presented in his own words and actions here as a genuinely concerned, even patriotic and self-effacing (to a surprising extent) person of quick intelligence. However, I think it may be impossible to remove politics from one's reaction to this film.
I am predisposed to judge Snowden as hero, and the reporters and filmmaker as brave and vital exemplars of the Fourth Estate at its best. Thus the 5-star review of this fascinating documentary (one test for me is that never once did I check the video timer, my attention was so rapt, the tension of the film so strongly presented, that I was on tenterhooks throughout.) Some films actually have the power to effect change in the way the world is perceived, even more so than the printed word. That is why this documentary is more of a paradigm shifter than the printed articles in the Guardian and Washington Post were. Power to the medium of film!
This documentary lays out with clarity and persuasiveness the dangers to American Constitutional democracy implicit in such developments as "Citizens United," "Hobby Lobby," and "Pay 2 Play" (where the corruption of corporate money and bought and paid for politicians trump the will of the voters.) The film also describes some ways that the system might be saved: examining the phenomena of political tagging and Occupy movements. This is one of the better films laying out both problems and solutions; and even though for me it was preaching to the choir, I would hope that such an effective polemic might reach enough people to make a difference in reducing apathy and affecting change, starting with a Constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United.
A battle-hardened American tank crew fighting superior German armor in the waning days of WWII initiates a raw young recruit into the terrors of tank warfare. 1) I like WWII movies. 2) Director David Ayer makes extraordinarily realistic films. 3) This was shot on film and looks it. 4) Logan Lerman gives a great performance, taking his initially wan character through a memorable 24-hour coming of age arc. 5) Brad Pitt is still a movie star.
In 2014 a WWII film has to up the ante to be relevant. Ayer succeeds...shooting much of the film in the confined space of a tank, designing tank battles with unprecedented (at least in Hollywood films) clarity and savagery, and limning some unusually anti-heroic warriors. Even if the whole story arc is fairly predictable, this film worked for me.
This large scale epic film tells the story of Simon Bolivar, scion of a wealthy landowning family in Spain's Venezuela Province, who led a successful revolution to liberate Greater Columbia from 300 years of colonial tyranny. The film roughly covers thirty years of his life, from 1800-1830. Edgar Ramirez was magnetic and dashing in the title role, even if his stolid mien gave little insight into what made the man tick. Other familiar faces (to an anglophone audience) were Danny Huston as a rich English supporter, and Gary Lewis and Iwan Rheon (who is making such a strong showing as Ramsay Snow in "Game of Thrones") as foreign soldiers who joined Bolivar in his war.
I found this film particularly informative up to a point, since my education included little about this George Washington of South America. However, the film seems to say that unlike Washington, Bolivar was unable or unpolitic enough to form a stable Union after defeating the Spaniards. But despite the film's lack of clarity about the historical context, it works as an intimate war epic, with well directed, huge battle scenes and immaculate period costumes and settings. This is stirring stuff; and the film has the size and weight adequate to its subject.
Due to fracking, western North Dakota is undergoing a boom of gold rush proportions. Desperate men are arriving daily at, for example, the sleepy town of Williston, looking for relatively high paying work. This is straining the infrastructure of such towns...lack of housing, seedy drifters upsetting the god-fearing natives. To combat this, a compassionate Lutheran minister contributed his church (and occasionally his home) to domicile for a short time these arriving "overnighters." This documentary shows with shocking effectiveness the unintended consequences of this charity, both for the drifters and the pastor and his family. The film culminates with a twist (no spoilers) that proves the adage that truth is stranger than any possible fiction. Powerful and provocative material, masterfully told if profoundly disturbing.
Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman just about defines a sub-genre: the sprawling, informational cinema verité film with an absolute minimum of editorializing (no narration, people identifications, or any obvious filmmaker agenda.) This beautifully photographed, three hour film experience shows approximately a year in the operation (both publicly and behind the scenes) of the British institution, the National Gallery of art in Trafalgar Square. It covers in depth the production of two large exhibits devoted to Leonardo da Vinci and Titian. But it also examines the workings of this great museum: the activities (docents, art classes, lectures, artwork restoration, recitals and ballets using the premises etc.) which comprise the behind-the-scenes operation of this great museum. The film also uses frequent montage scenes of the museum's galleries, details of hundreds of artworks on display, and shots of the public viewing the art. It does this with no obvious structure or editorial schema...and, at least with this film, it worked for me because I have a long-standing personal interest in paintings and museums. I've visited the National Gallery (in 2001); and due to this film I expect that I would appreciate several-fold more a re-visit.
Nasir Jones is a seminal hip-hop artist who grew up in the Queens, N.Y. projects and rose to prominence with his album "Illmatic." Actually, I had never heard of Nas before this film, probably because I'm too old and too whitebread to appreciate rap. This documentary tells of Nas's life: his determination to escape the projects, his rise to fame as a singer-songwriter rapper, and the tragic stories of his childhood friends many of whom were killed or incarcerated. Much of the film is devoted to videos of his performances; and most of the songs are subtitled. I've always had trouble in the past understanding the lyrics of rap music...so for once I was able to appreciate the poetry, even if I still have trouble relating to the world these songs describe. This is a well made biographical music documentary; but unfortunately I simply am not the right audience for it.
This documentary tells the story of Nicholas Vreeland, grandson of the famed Vogue editor and an American aristocrat, who became a Tibetan Buddhist monk. As a young man, Vreeland was a photographer; and this bio-documentary shows how he continued to practice his art even as he followed his own personal spiritual path. Starting out as a novice, he was eventually appointed by the Dalai Lama to be abbot of a large monastery in India, the construction of which he helped fund by exhibiting and selling his photographs in Manhattan. Vreeland's extraordinary spiritual life, and what we see of his mature photography and the exotic locales in India are interesting enough to carry the film.
Manipur is a province of India in the northeast bordering on Burma. It was once an independent kingdom; and now is the site of a bitter insurgency for independence. In WWII, it was an allied bastion where baseball playing American troops influenced a number of Manipurians to take up baseball after the war. In a land where cricket and soccer are paramount, American baseball has become an institution, perhaps even a local metaphor for freedom from India. This sometimes inspiring, often heartbreaking documentary tells the story of a few of the local players as part of a larger political and historical context (utilizing well written narration by Melissa Leo). But the film also focuses on two professional American coaches who are sent by Organized Baseball to Manipur to train local coaches. It is surprising to find such passion for the American national pastime in such exotic surroundings. But the film is also important because it lifts the curtain on an almost unknown and troubled corner of the world and its plucky, baseball loving peoples.
This documentary joins a growing number of films which recount the ecological disaster which mankind is creating...in this case the decimation of sea life by overfishing; and the impending death of the polluted oceans, with dire future impact that we ignore at our peril. The film is centered around the life and career of famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle, and the Mission Blue organization devoted to saving the oceans by designating fishing and dumping free zones. Earle is a fascinating and important scientist and undersea explorer. And this documentary, in addition to bringing to the screen some amazing underwater footage, is also an important tool to bring public awareness to the problem and hopeful solution.
Lacey Schwartz grew up the child of a conventional, white Jewish family in Woodstock, New York. However, due to the darkness of her skin (explained by her parents as the result of a Sicilian grandfather), starting in high school she began to doubt her mother's story. By the time she was in college, still with no acknowledgment from her family, it felt natural for her to join black student groups; and she set out to discover the truth of her birth.
There is a sub-genre of documentaries: the personal family memoir about secrets revealed. Sarah Polley memorably made a revelatory film about her family with Stories We Tell. Filmmaker Schwartz has made a similar film, probing in depth the effect on her of a lifetime of lies, denial and eventual revelations. It is a tribute to her filmmaking skills that she so entertainingly spins her true-life story with reflective narration, old videos and recent interviews.
Michael Heizer is an artist-sculptor who creates monumental projects for museums and cityscapes...and to fulfill his own grandiose ambitions. This documentary is about the production associated with his 2012 installation: a gigantic 340 ton granite rock suspended over a huge trench at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The rock was found in a quarry in Riverside County; and the transportation to the LACMA campus (only 2 miles from where I live) was a newsworthy trek of over 100 miles that took years of planning and obtaining of the necessary permits. The film centers on that project, which generated crowds along the way and controversial news reports at the time (L.A. was also recently in the news for a similar trek of gigantic proportions when the Space Shuttle had to be moved through the streets of the city.) This is a fun, entertaining film about an audacious concept and the people and technology which made it possible.
This is a rather disjointed documentary centered around an erstwhile Somali pirate, Mohamed. Using some nifty animation, the film recounts his previous pirate stories, often using the metaphor of an eagle pouncing on prey. But the heart of the film is shot cinema verité style, following Mohamed around as he visits his family and the children he deserted, watching him spend and run short of his ill-gotten gains on a new wife (who insists he doesn't return to pirating), a car, house etc. Maybe I missed something; but the film left me uncertain of what happened to Mohamed after he decided to go back to piracy (or did he?) The film is detailed; but lacks insight.
Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were fledgling film makers when they hooked up with a young, inexperienced rock group that became, under their management, The Who. This documentary combines fascinating footage shot by Lambert and Stamp of the start-up group in the 1960s, along with current interviews with survivors (particularly Stamp, Townshend and Daltry). The scattershot editing schema of the film detracts a little from the impact of the fascinating material. I was a huge Who fan from the beginning of their American fame...but I had no idea of the background and personalities of the group and their management (unlike the Beatles and Stones whose stories were more public.) Of particular interest for me was the complex character of Lambert: posh son of a famed musician, gay, wasted by drugs and dead at age 45. Too bad the film doesn't divulge even more about him. Still, this is an appreciated and important film about a seminal rock group.
I don't want to discuss the plot of this film...except for the twist (which I figured out fairly early), this is your standard garage band forms, takes fire and blows up story. But unlike with most films of this genre, the original songs were wonderful, even thrilling. That isn't as easy as it sounds, since it almost never happens. Also, Billy Crudup: amazing actor who lights up the screen and needs to be seen more often. William Macy's first film as director, and it won't be his last.
What I loved: the technical mastery of this film, the sheer ebullience of the kinetic camera, always moving in one continuous take which seemingly effortlessly spanned days. What I liked: the sheer cinematic theatricality of the plot and performances...especially Norton and Watts, and to a lesser degree Galifianakis and Stone. But Keaton's commitment to the role was thrilling to watch, too, even if his character's hysteria occasionally seemed too broad. What I loved: the drum music track which was a perfect accompaniment to the constantly swooping camera (this is the year that percussion came out of the closet, considering this soundtrack and the sonic thrills of Whiplash. ) What I liked: the magical realism which edged just this side of contrivance; and the subversive humor which sneaked in when the characters' insanity threatened to overwhelm the story.
Bottom line: lots to love, lots to like. Close to a cinematic masterpiece, and Iñárritu's most daring and accomplished film yet.
Marion Cotillard gives one of her best performances as Sandra, a wife and mother of two who is coming off a period of depression and resulting layoff at her solar power company. Now ready to come back to work in a poor economy, her boss offers her co-workers a terrible choice: vote to re-hire Sandra or sacrifice their own €1,000 bonus. The film follows Sandra as she visits several of her co-workers on a long weekend to try to convince them to vote for her...a true moral dilemma which is also terribly costly in Sandra's fragile mental state. The Dardenne brothers have developed a consistent visual style of taking long tracking shots following their main character; and this film fits squarely within that schema. The film also is a fine illustration of human nature at both its best and worst in times of stress.
The eponymous Mateo is a good looking but surly teenager living in a river port city in Colombia's violence-scarred Magdalena region. Initially he's under the sway of his gangster uncle; but in order to stay at school and please his hard working mother, he reluctantly joins an acting club led by a concerned priest. That is the setup for this involving coming-of-age story which is also an impassioned social-issues drama.
Clark Terry is one of the great jazz trumpet players of all time. Now in his 90s and a diabetic double amputee, he still inspires students and acolytes (among them his former student Quincy Jones) who visit him and his wife Gwen at their Arkansas home. One of Terry's students for years has been totally blind jazz piano prodigy Justin Kauflin. This touching music documentary tells of the long-term mentoring relationship between Kauflin and Terry. The film is roughly divided into two intercut parts: Terry's story and career through some remarkable old film footage from the big band era...and the blossoming of young Kauflin's career in a contemporary setting. But what really sets this documentary apart is the positive and inspiring relationship between youth and old age that it illustrates.
This documentary recounts the history of the sad plight of U.S. migrant farm workers, from slavery to the the present day. Emphasis is given to the Fair Food Program, which targets the top of the food chain, namely the supermarkets, to raise public awareness of abuses throughout the business of modern agriculture. The film culminates with a mass fast by workers and sympathizers against the stonewalling tactics of Publix, a large supermarket chain in Florida.
In many ways this film parallels another documentary I watched earlier this year, Cesar's Last Fast. This film is more up-to-date, and narrows its main focus to the very real abuses on the southwest Florida tomato farms. This is a heartfelt plea for the workers' causes, for instance raising workers pay by a penny a pound would double their pay, but have an almost negligible effect at the cash register. But like most advocacy documentaries, its message will probably only be received by those already sympathetic.
The Emergency Team of this involving documentary are committed workers for a worldwide organization called the Human Rights Watch. This film follows four brave members of the E-team as they travel into the hot spots of human rights violations at great risk to themselves (and the documentary film crew) to publicize the worst of the human rights violations. The film follows them into Syria at the height of the bombing and gassing of civilians by the Assad regime. It also follows them as they descend into the anarchy of the Libyan revolution. Another sequence shows the positive affects of their efforts as one of these heroic investigators testifies at the genocide trial of Serbian war criminal Milosevic at The Hague. The very nature of the "fog of war" makes some of these sequences hard to follow; but the film leaves no doubt that war crimes have been committed.
John Rodemann works at an assisted living facility in Cleveland, OH. He is the on-screen narrator of this feel-good documentary which examines the progress over several months of several patients suffering from various levels of dementia as they take part in an experiment called the "Saido Learning Memory Support Program." In the course of the film, Rodemann continuously asks the patients "Do you know what my name is?" And then we watch as the patients undergo daily mind exercises involving simple arithmetic and arranging blocks, tests invented in Japan. The results are heartening, to say the least. This film hit me like a ton of bricks since I am watching my own 96 year old mother disappear from dementia. But leaving aside my own personal involvement, there is just something quite optimistic about this film, watching a committed, empathetic young man like Rodemann care so deeply and effectively for these elderly subjects who become so well humanized in the course of the film.
This film is being released under the title The Decent One, a title drenched in irony. At the end of WWII a cache of letters, diaries and films was discovered at the alpine home of SS Reichsfürer Heinrich Himmler which is only recently coming to light. The filmmaker utilizes this material in a more or less chronological telling of Himmler's life in his own (and his intimate family's) words.
The technique is voice-over readings from the letters and diaries, with their blithe quotidian trivialities and delusions, counterpointed by some of the best and most harrowing visual film clips of the Nazi era ever collected on film. The result is as brilliantly produced an illustration of the "banality of evil" as I have seen. The production is immaculate: beautifully preserved B&W footage brought to life by excellent sound effects editing. But what sets this film apart is the writing, how it builds a comprehensive chronicle of the chicken farmer turned mass murderer's life that is both illuminating and terrifying.
Angola is one of the most troubled areas of the world. After overthrowing their Portuguese colonists in 1975 the country suffered from 27 years of vicious civil war. One of the hardest hit casualties of the civil war was the country's second city Huambo, almost totally destroyed leaving many orphaned street children. This film documents the recovery of Huambo through the efforts of one couple Sonia and Wilker, the latter a famous "death metal" guitarist and singer. Death metal is a combination of heavy metal rock and punk, in this case with a particular African sensibility. This film documents Sonia's commitment to an orphanage for the lost children, and above all the genesis of a free rock festival organized by Wilker and thrown in Huambo to celebrate freedom. The music is somewhat too hardcore for my sensibilities. And the film's structure is initially so loose that I lost interest. But when the film devoted itself to the preparation and production of the rock festival it worked. There is an admirable message here; but it was mostly lost on me.
This documentary is a comprehensive, well reasoned and beautifully presented condemnation of the all-but-lost drug wars, especially the laws against marijuana. Using medical experts and instructive film clips and graphics demonstrating the corruption of the system which entrenches irrational laws, the film drives home its factual reality until it is hard to believe that anybody watching this film would remain unconvinced. Of course in my case it is preaching to the choir. I don't use intoxicants of any kind now; but I used marijuana and psychedelics extensively as a young adult. I don't need to be convinced that the present laws are insane, even as they are difficult to change as long as the powers that be (commercial prisons needing to be filled, an entrenched drug enforcement bureaucracy, a corrupt political system) profit from this modern day Prohibition. Hopefully a film like this will change minds and effect change.
Frantz Fanon was a Martinique-born philosopher, revolutionary and Marxist who died in 1961. This documentary quotes extensively from his anti-colonialist book "The Wretched of the Earth" while telling nine stories of the varied struggles for liberation against the European colonial powers in such African countries as Angola, Liberia, Burkina-Faso and Mozambique. The quotes from Fanon are replicated on screen in large type while being narrated by Lauryn Hill. The nine chapters contain some amazing footage of freedom fighters in action shot at great danger and well put together. However, the highly charged, intellectual dialectic of the narration was heavy slogging for me, although the shocking visuals were extremely effective in making the point of the centuries of crimes committed by the colonial powers.
Wachtang "Botso" Koresheli is a nonagenarian teacher, musician and sculptor who today lives in Morro Bay, California. He was born in the Republic of Georgia. His actor father was executed by the KGB under Stalin's orders. He spent much of WWII in a German prisoner of war camp, and eventually emigrated to the U.S. and lived a remarkable life.
This moving and lovely documentary tells his life story more or less chronologically; but more than that it illustrates how a great teacher and artist can inspire generations of students and admirers. Spending 80 minutes by film with this man is an experience to treasure.
Elizabeth Streb is a dancer and choreographer whose troupe of performers based in New York City devote themselves to particularly challenging physical and gravity defying feats of dance. This documentary examines Streb's life and art and that of several of her disciples. The performance pieces, culminating in some spectacular public stunts performed parallel to the 2012 London Olympics, were scintillating (although the final one, involving the London Eye Ferris wheel, was underwhelming on film since its scope was so gigantic.) The interview footage with now 60-something, lesbian Streb and her young, super-fit dancers was uneven, but illuminating. But the film won me over for the sheer ebullience and amazing precision of the performance pieces.
Especially among the Hindus of Bali (Indonesia), polygamy ("honey marriage") is a somewhat common practice. This documentary examines three such families in depth, along with probing interviews with an anthropologist and some entertaining and relevant shadow puppet show sequences used as a kind of Greek chorus commentary.
The interviews with the principals were illuminating. Many of the wives were lied to and found themselves bound by tradition and necessity to remain in the relationships despite misgivings and frequent physical and mental abuse. The philandering husbands were smug and self-satisfied, citing that they were only acting as their fathers and grandfathers had. One of the husbands even demonstrated that he didn't know the names of some of his many children by his 5 wives. All of this should be infuriating; but for me, at least, the loose editorial structure of the film made it difficult to become engaged with the plight of the wives. I can't help but compare this film with another recent Indonesian documentary, Act of Killing, which for me also was so alien to my comprehension that I was turned off.
Lily Yeh was born in China in 1941 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1963 to study art as a grad student at the U. Penn. She has specialized in creating large-scale beautification projects in public places, among them an art district in North Philadelphia and a memorial to the genocide victims in Rwanda.
This documentary was shot and co-directed by her son. It followed Lily around the world as she created her projects; but it also delved deeply into her intriguing family history (father a Kuomintang general who escaped with his second wife and family to Taiwan leaving his first family to deprivations in China after the Communist takeover.) The film contains several deeply felt emotional scenes of reconciliation and sheer artistic ebullience. But even as I admired Yeh's determination and artistry, the film never quite clicked for me.
Swami Yogananda was a North India spiritual guru whose calling brought him to the United States (and especially Los Angeles) in 1920 at the age of 27. His broad worldwide appeal to self-realization through yoga and meditation made him famous and influential...his many disciples included George Harrison.
I may be one of least spiritual people on the planet, so the actual message of this film was lost to me. Nevertheless this documentary with original footage of Yogananda and re-creations of his life utilizing look-alike actors, was well enough made to be a valuable historical document (although I suspect the film was made as a proselytizing tool.)
Mark Landis is an art forger. He's also a mental case, as this documentary readily shows. For years, Landis contributed his forged artworks to various museums nationwide for free. As he states here, he was hooked on philanthropy. That so many curators accepted the forged pieces as real is quite surprising; but they really were well executed. I guess he has avoided being prosecuted for his actions because he didn't profit from his activities. In fact, an art museum in Cincinnati recently put on an art show featuring his forgeries after he was outed, which culminates the film.
Personally, I was so turned off by Landis as a person: simpering, creepy, passive aggressive, borderline psychotic, that I disliked the film despite the quality of the film making. I couldn't help but feel that this fraud was being celebrated for his wrong doings; and it pissed me off. Of course, others might decide this sort of visceral reaction is precisely why this is a good documentary.
An above average television movie with a fine performance by Adrien Brody as Harry Houdini (ne Weiss). By its very nature this sort of biopic is episodic, and the techniques to increase suspense creaked of old fashioned screen writing. However Brody's performance and the superb production design were good enough to make for an interesting, even occasionally gripping TV event.
Anthony Powell is a satellite communications technician working at the McMurdo Base station in Antarctica. He's also a cameraman and a tinkerer, developing camera systems that can function at the sub-zero temperatures and Category 5 winds of the Antarctic winter. This documentary was put together to show the effects of one year of living in Antarctica on both the environment and the people working there.
Powell interviewed his fellow inhabitants, followed them (and himself) doing the strenuous tasks of surviving in the environment which is the closest to the surface of Mars that exists on Earth. The film is full of inspiring sequences and hysterically funny sequences (people go batty during the 4-month-long night.) But the meat of this film are the time-lapse sequences of ice floes forming and melting, of endless days and nights following the sun, moon and stars. It isn't an exaggeration to say this footage is as amazing as anything ever put on film.
The film is skillfully put together telling the chronological story of Powell's arriving by plane from New Zealand in October and leaving by plane the following year. This film is about as exhilarating, entertaining and knock-out gorgeous as any documentary I've ever watched.
This documentary focuses on a no-charge school for Myanmar refugee children on the Thai border called "Good Morning School." The film follows several undocumented children and their families who have fled to the border town of Mae Sot to escape repression by the Burmese regime, and two teachers, one of whom was an American woman who spent a productive year at the school. This is an altogether admirable cause to make a film about...this school is doing a much needed service with limited funds. However this isn't a very good documentary IMHO. The film is heavily narrated (by Sigourney Weaver) with a plodding, over-obvious script; and it is further burdened with a familiar sounding, over-dramatized music track. On the other hand, the technical credits: cinematography, editing are first class. I wish I could give more love to this film just for its message.
Writer/director Peter Sanders made this documentary about his grandmother Altina: artist, socialite, cultural icon of sorts. Actually, I had never heard of Altina before this...my loss. She was an interesting character whose life and times spanning much of the 20th century were well worth making a movie about. Sanders utilizes many interviews with survivors, some well preserved period home movies, and professionally shot interviews he had made of his grandmother before her passing. But what sets this film apart are the revelations about Altina's artistic achievements...from her invention of the Harlequin glasses to her figurative sculptures as furniture. Interestingly enough, Altina's two sons, Denis and Terry Sanders, were Oscar winning documentarians; however this film makes scant mention of that fact.
Algorithms is a documentary that tells the stories of two years in the lives of three blind Indian boys who are competitive chess players. Yes, there are world junior blind chess tournaments; and it is a tense world indeed. The film is presented in B&W, much of it in heavily accented English (with occasional subtitles). The smart and variously troubled kids are well chosen. This is a very different kind of youth athletics competition film. Chess is not the easiest sport to follow; and this film makes no attempt to show the games as they progress, so it calls for no knowledge of the sport. Rather it centers on the boys, their families, their coach and the pressures on them to make India a power in the sport. Above all this is a film about talented, totally disabled children finding a way to excel despite their disability.
The current 2-hour film is a re-cut of two films (HIM and HER) which told the story of the breakup of a marriage after their infant child died from the two principal's separate points of view. Since unfortunately I couldn't watch the two film version, I can't compare them to this linearly combined version. However, I can say that the new film is vaguely unsatisfying despite the superb performance of Jessica Chastain in particular (James McAvoy isn't chopped liver, but his character isn't as clearly limned as Chastain's.) Maybe it was because of the intercutting of two disparate film styles; but occasionally the narrative seemed to lack continuity...and I found some of the novice director's techniques (soft focus etc.) annoying. Still, I'm pretty sure that the original 2-film concept probably worked much better than the re-edit.
This is a realistically dysfunctional family drama which culminates with a trial pitting on the stand a relatively young movie star vs. an elderly legend. No, there's no line of dialogue quite as memorable as "You can't handle the truth!" This is an entirely softer melodrama. Robert Duvall gives another great performance as the elderly titular judge...his supporting Oscar chances are good in this role, if only for one difficult to watch scene (in Q&A Duvall said his instinct was to turn this role down because he didn't want to play the scene in question.) The film is too long, with too many climaxes. But the A-list cast and an involving, moving script made for a satisfying movie experience.
Tom Hardy shows his enormous acting range by playing a bartender whose still waters run deep. This is a period piece about an era in New York City where certain bars were the drop point for the swag from all the illegal gang activity. The film gets its milieu exactly right; and its four main characters (including Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini in his last role, and Matthias Schoenaerts) give beautifully nuanced performances. Belgian director Michael Roskam (Bullhead) avoids most of the pitfalls of European art film directors making their initial foray into Hollywood by keeping this one strictly indie with high production values.
Nick Cave is an Australian singer-songwriter living in Britain. A friend of mine calls him the Goth Leonard Cohen, and I can see that comparison. This documentary is basically Cave's diary of his 20,000 days on earth (around 55 years) through rehearsals, concerts and various activities (a visit with his psychiatrist, imaginary driving trips with friends like Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone, eating pizza with his twin sons, meditating about the Brighton weather at home etc.) It's all rather self-indulgent; and I suppose one's reaction to the film depends on how much of a Nick Cave fan one is. I'm not; but I could appreciate the film making for its fine cinematography and special effect montages...even if Cave's charms (and music) fell short of my admiration.
Whitey Bulger was a Boston Irish gangster, allegedly an FBI informant against the Italian mafia, certainly a murderer and extortionist. Having been tipped off, he fled from an imminent indictment and was finally caught in Los Angeles 16 years later and recently tried in Federal court. This documentary is an exhaustive study of his trial and some alleged corruption in the FBI and justice department.
The trial was not covered by TV, so the coverage in this documentary is heavy on interviews and sound bytes from the transcripts. As fascinating as the speculations of the film are, I have to admit that by the end of the film, I felt no closer to understanding the facts of the alleged government corruption (in other words, lots of claims, but no smoking gun.) The fact that Bulger himself remained a non-interviewed cypher didn't help. Normally, when a documentary is as unresolved as this one was I would tend to downgrade it. But the real story here is how the government probably has deliberately distorted and falsified the actual record of its illegal involvement, in order to safeguard previous convictions. I'm not sure that this film actually proves anything about that, so many principals are dead or not interviewed...but it does make for intriguing speculation.
School districts across the country are facing budget shortfalls. In Philadelphia this has been especially challenging, and several schools had to be eliminated. Among them was Germantown High, in a heavily black neighborhood, forced to close its doors after 99 years (personal note: my father graduated from Germantown High in 1927.)
The students were transferred to their deadly rival, Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, a school that hadn't won a single football game the previous year. Somehow a football program combining the two schools was cobbled together with an unpaid coach and some severely underprivileged kids not happy with being forced to play for the enemy. This documentary covers that first football season of the combined teams; and the film makers couldn't have been luckier in the outcome. The film mainly follows two boys, a giant senior lineman who is having scholastic troubles; and a wiry, athletic junior free safety who mid-season got into legal trouble. But ultimately this is the story of how high school sports can bring a neighborhood together despite difficult obstacles; and makes a case for high school athletics which is an endangered inner city pastime.
The film does overplay somewhat the drama of the football action with scanty coverage at times. But it is well edited to enhance the drama, although sometimes it seems almost too good to be true. This film is a fine addition to the growing genre of inspirational high school sports films.
In 2004, as part of an extracurricular class project, four undocumented Latino students at the Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, Arizona built an underwater robot out of Home Depot parts which competed against several colleges in a competition at the University of California at Santa Barbara. This documentary recounts these students' stories and that of their teachers/advisers; how they took on and bested second place MIT, and in the process became an inspiration for future Latino students and proof that the United States is wasting a valuable resource in its war on undocumented youths.
This is an example of a documentary with laudable intentions, and one that really could make an impact on the unjust immigration system in place, particularly in Arizona. Perhaps the film making is a tad too dependent on repetitive interviews and on-the-nose narration (by Michael Peña) for my tastes; but that doesn't diminish the film's importance.
A sort-of Jewish family (mom is Gentile...but also Jane Fonda with prosthetic breasts) come together to sit Shiva for their departed father. Everybody is more-or-less screwed up in their relationships; and occasional comic moments and pathos comes from the gradual disclosure of how and why this scattered family became so estranged. Jason Bateman as the middle of three brothers plays his usual role as the moral center; and Tina Fay as the lone sister is her usual wise quipster. I could go on...this is a fine cast trying to escape from the fusillade of clichés that every dysfunctional family get-together movie seems to bring to the table. I did enjoy this oh-so-familiar themed film even though I could almost have predicted every scene (and I had never read the source novel.) The actors were that good.
I love Paris; and I applaud films about elderly people with an adult audience in mind. There are few actors who operate at such a high level as Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas. Yet this moral fable of long-ago extramarital affairs and how they resound through generations quickly became tiresome and fusty.
There is no rule that says that a documentary can't be entertaining, that it has to be serious and constructive. I'm about 50 years too old to have experienced the "rave" generation in person. Monterrey Pop and Woodstock were more my era. But I'm not too old to vicariously enjoy it when 300,000 ravers got together for the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas...three nights in June, 2013. This documentary follows several participants as they travel to and experience the carnival; and their enthusiasm and the electronic music are infectious.
The film leaves no doubt that this is a hugely commercialized event, and the film designed to sell the brand. Still, the sheer coverage and production values of the film making are astounding. In all the mass of writhing humanity, the film does manage to mostly narrow the focus to its interesting cast of crazed and committed ravers (a surprisingly white-bread bunch). Amazingly enough I had never heard of EDC before this film, that's how out of it I am these days. Still, the film was so fine that I just about felt that I was there...I laughed, I cried, I grooved to the sounds. I guess I'm not too old to rave after all.
John Hartley Robertson was a Special Forces sergeant who was shot down in a helicopter on a secret mission in Laos in 1968. He was first reported MIA and then dead, although his body was never found. This documentary is about an elderly man claiming to be Robertson who appeared forty years later, and the project of several ex-servicemen to bring him home despite the army's insistence that no MIAs were left in the area.
The film is an interesting case study of the processes used in making identifications. It's also a moving testament to human resilience despite government obfuscation. The fact that the film ends with no certain resolution is almost (but not entirely) beside the point.
This is a documentary with an admirable theme: the history of upscale Blacks in the U.S. utilizing amateur and professional photographers of color and their mostly black and white photographs. The photos are exquisite for the most part; and the montages of the stills were often filmed with originality enhancing their effectiveness. The filmmaker interviewed still-living photographers for their insights, and gave generous time to his own family history through photo albums. However, he also provided narration throughout which came off to me as somewhat pretentious and thematically repetitive.
Venance is a Tanzanian young man who emigrated to Miami a few years ago, overcoming great obstacles in order to get an education and better his lot. His very, very blond and very, very pretty friend Kristen is, well, an over-privileged young white Miami activist. A couple years ago they traveled together to Tanzania, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, spied on animals on the Serengeti, visited Ven's old haunts including his grandmother's village and the house where he watched his mother die of HIV.
The documentary is a lot more than a mere travelogue. Ven's homecoming is an emotional roller coaster. And Kristen is soon disabused of her fantasies about the superiority of the primitive lifestyle (a woman's toil filled lot in these villages is not a happy one.) The cinematography is superb; and the film is well edited and informative. Too bad that I found Kristen's all-too-American attitudes insufferable.
With the added perspective of having recently read the book, all I can say is that I respect the filmmakers even more. Condensing the story, changing Ender's age, adding a meaningful moral dimension all added up to a more convincing film the second time around. I simply don't understand why this film hasn't become a classic of the genre. There's still time.
I liked the TV show, even though I came in late to the party. Most of the characters are back. Ten year have passed and Logan's involvement in a murder investigation brings Veronica back from New York where she was six weeks from the bar exam, in a relationship with Piz and about to take a job with a big law firm. It doesn't go that way, since Neptune is still the cess pit it always was. Maybe a plot which is all resolved in one movie script changed the dynamics; but it all seemed very predictable and manufactured. And slick. I can live with slick.
There's a Liam Neeson genre: grizzled strong man triumphs over implacable evil. It's gotten to be so cookie-cutter that I've quit going to see most of his recent movies. This one I went to because a supposedly unrecognizable Dan Stevens was in it...and in truth he's quite remarkably different from his Matthew Crawley character (except for the supernaturally blue eyes). In this film the real bad guys are unbelievably evil...and I couldn't help but detect a whiff of homophobia in their characterizations. Offensive, unbelievable, cookie-cutter...why even bother?
Shep Gordon got his start managing for the at the time unknown Alice Cooper, and branched out to manage other artists and even celebrity chefs during his long career. Mike Myers (yes, that Mike Myers: Wayne and Austin Powers among others) is his friend and is credited as director of this documentary...and it isn't terrible. After all, any film which presents hundreds of familiar celebrities unabashedly lauding its subject's menschness, has a lot going for it. Gordon is semi-retired now, living in splendor on Maui. He's genial, honest and remarkably forthcoming; and one gets the feeling that most of the plaudits are well deserved. The film is enjoyable to watch, a vicarious journey among the rich and talented. But I like my documentaries to have more heft.
This superbly evocative documentary follows three teenage boys who live in the small Missouri town of Rich Hill. Andrew is an optimistic, good looking kid whose itinerant father has trouble finding work...so the family (including mom and twin sister) is constantly moving. Lasting friendships and extracurricular football are out of the question. Appachey is an overweight, hyperactive skateboarder whose father deserted the large family when he was six, and whose mother is having trouble controlling her troubled son. Harley is living with his grandmother, acting out his frustration and seething with repressed violence, as his mother languishes in prison for trying to murder the step-father who was sexually abusing her son.
The film is beautifully shot and edited cinema verité style, cross cutting the unconnected stories with a mostly invisible camera presence and no editorializing. It has a wonderfully languid musical score (by Nathan Halpern) which establishes a consistent mood of impoverishment and fate. To say that these boys' stories are heartbreaking is not an understatement. Yet, the filmmakers concentrate on moments of pluck: happy July 4th celebrations and Halloween which, despite everything give the viewer some hope for these kids.
Tagore was a Bengali poet, philosopher, musician, all around polymath who lived from 1861 to 1941. This hagiography of his life made as an educational documentary is so didactic and boring that, at least from a filmic point of view, it probably sets back for decades the admirable goal of advancing Tagore's reputation in the West.
Andrew is a first year drum student at a top-rated New York City conservatory. His ambition is to be noticed by the disciplinarian teacher who conducts the advance jazz orchestra class. Miles Teller, who is fast cementing his reputation as one of the finest actors of his generation, plays Andrew. J. K. Simmons plays the obsessive, committed teacher, Mr. Fletcher...and finally gets a role that really showcases his strengths: mental and physical toughness.
The film is a psychological battle of wits between teacher and student, as the former tries to bring out the genius in the latter with stern discipline that might be going over the line into torture. This is the stuff of fine drama; and the acting, writing and direction do not disappoint. I know little about such orchestral jazz pieces as "Whiplash" and "Caravan" which are performed in this film; but I left the theater in awe. I'm not sure if Teller was actually making the drum sounds; but the sheer physicality of his drum playing was so convincing and realistic (he literally bled from the exertion) that it hardly matters. Sheer brilliance. And it is hard not to make favorable comparisons of Simmons in this role with Lee Ermey, the martinet gunnery sergeant in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, high praise indeed.
The film followed a familiar narrative path; but the characterizations were so fully realized, the conflict so clearly delineated, that it never seemed predictable. The wordless climax was, well magnificent may be too strong...but you get the idea. This is edge of your seat stuff. Who knew that the processes of drumming could be so involving?
This documentary covers the life and opinions of Nat Hentoff, columnist, music critic (especially jazz) and maverick intellectual. He's a good guy, something of a libertarian, but in a good way. And his reminiscences about the glory days of jazz along with snippets of old footage of the greats are worth the ticket. However the organization of the film itself is something of a hodgepodge. It's quite worthwhile to spend some time with this still interesting old man; but one always hopes for a more original format when it comes to these biographical documentaries.
This often fascinating documentary shows a nerd's-eye view of the development of the gigantic Hedron Collider at CERN in Switzerland and how the theoretical "God Particle" (the Higgs boson) was found, raising many physics questions still unanswered. The film makers had unparalleled access with their cameras to the vast 17 mile circular structure. Utilizing interviews with engineers and semi-famous theoretical physicists plus spectacularly effective animation and original music, the film turns some dry speculation at the arcane frontiers of science into a scientific mystery thriller and celebration of sheer intelligence. The romance of pure science has rarely been this well presented.
The culminating production of the Bridge Project was a world tour of Shakespeare's "Richard III." The titular role was played by Kevin Spacey, the director was Sam Mendes; and the troupe had a distinctive Anglo-American composition. The tour started in London at the Old Vic, traveled through Europe, then San Francisco, Asia, Australia and the Emirates, finally concluding in Brooklyn for its 199th performance. This documentary tells the more or less chronological story of that world tour mostly from interviews with cast and crew...cross cutting with generous excerpts of the play at the various, often spectacular, venues (the theaters in Greece, Naples, Beijing and Doha were revelations.) This would be admirable just for content and cinematography alone; but for me the film just plodded along predictably, the format so traditional that no amount of star power or modern Shakespearian interpretation could keep me intrigued for the duration.
James Marcus Haney was a U.S.C. student who developed a mania for sneaking into rock festivals with several cameras, starting with Coachella in 2010. Using multimedia techniques (animation, fast cuts, dubbing silent footage, "confessional" type interviews) he put together a film documenting his development as a brave, foolhardy rock photographer...and incidentally told his own story and that of several of his music addled friends.
This is MTV rock video montage stuff run riot (not surprising that it is an MTV developed film). However, for all its gung-ho fanishishness and half-baked, self-serving narrative, this is still one of the most entertaining films I expect to watch this year. Back in my day (the age of Monterrey Pop and Grateful Dead concerts), I was a stoner dude with a serious film jones. I'm out of it now; but for 1 1/2 hours with Haney and friends, I felt the crazy energy and exuberance of today's youth and music world which brought back the feeling. Technically the film is something of a mess. It doesn't matter.
The island territory of American Samoa has fielded just about the worst soccer team in the world for decades. Win-less, and practically goal-less in that time, they once famously lost a match with the Australian national team 31-0. However, this feel-good sports documentary tells the story how a Dutch coach, a transgendered athlete and some returned-from-the-US players of Samoan ancestry helped the existing team to achieve a victory of sorts in the South Pacific qualification tournament for the 2014 Brazilian world cup. What I liked about this documentary was the way it aided this soccer illiterate to relate to the sport with excellent photography and editing. However, the film never overcame the cliches and predictability of the sports documentary genre.
This uplifting documentary recounts the stories of a varied group of retirees who live in Connecticut's Jewish Home for the Elderly as they prepare for and go on a guided trip to Israel. The travelogue portion of the trip is interesting in and of itself; but it is the fortuitous choice of lively and memorable participants (most in their 80's and 90's and including at least one Catholic woman) that really brings the film to life.
I'm currently in the midst of my annual project to watch all the documentaries submitted for Oscar consideration this year (last year there were 145, this year...who knows? the process is only part-way over.) As I go along, I find myself longing for something different, out of the ordinary, a breakthrough for the genre in form or content. However, it has often turned out that when faced with a documentary challenging the established "rules" in novel ways, more likely than not I'm unable to get with the program.
The Manakamana is a temple perched high in the foothills of Nepal. It once took three days to traverse the forests and mountains to reach it. Then somebody built a cable car, and the entire trip was reduced to 10 minutes. In this film, the film makers set up a stationary camera facing the single seat in one of the cable cars and let it run through 11 consecutive trips without stopping the camera. We watch a grandfather and grandson silently traversing the route; then a single woman carrying possibly an offering to the goddess. Then a married couple silent through most of the trip who finally speak a few words, then three elderly women who tell each other stories, then a trio of young bar singers chatting away taking photos, then just a load of bleating goats with no people, then a couple of American girls, then a pair of elderly musicians practicing on their Nepalese wind instruments, and so on until finally the third couple silently reappear descending the mountain. I'm not sure what I would have felt in a theater...probably squirmed with boredom at the repetitiveness of it all. At home I felt a strong urge to use the fast forward on occasion...and did so with guilt.
I'm sure there is an audience for this type of film. It is certainly an honest ethnographic still life capsule of various lives. But for me, a former film editor who worships montage, it simply didn't engage me for the two unedited hours I would need to spend with it.
Llyn Foulkes is a representational painter and one-man-band musician who works in Los Angeles. This documentary followed his life and eccentric work process during his seventh decade, mostly letting Foulkes himself work and opine on camera. Foulkes pulls no punches; and frankly I found his personality somewhat abrasive. But I guess that just makes him an interesting subject for documenting. He also writes and performs music using a Rube Goldberg kind of one-man-band machine. He's good; and honestly I liked the songs more than his blathering on and on about art. Still, he's obviously a fine, maybe even great modern painter...so I have to forgive him his endless dithering (he seemed to be unable to finish a painting, especially one of him and his ex-wife in bed which apparently ended their marriage.) This film joins a short list of documentaries about unique artists like Ai Weiwei and the Shinoharas in Cutie and the Boxer; but it just ran on too long with the same old same old tired rant from Foulkes himself.
As anybody reading this undoubtedly knows, Roger Ebert was an immensely influential film critic, journalist, and blogger. Like many other movie fans, I watched his weekly television bouts with his fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel. Of course at the time I usually sided with Siskel. I also observed online his horrific bout with cancer.
This documentary examines Ebert's entire life, based on his autobiography. It covers his career, his alcoholism, his mellowing out after marrying at age 50 a beautiful woman of color with a built-in family of children and grandchildren. Interesting, but unremarkable. It is only when the film devotes the second half to Ebert's life with cancer, that I became emotionally involved with this film. I'm a few months older than Ebert, so I couldn't help but identify with his harrowing years-long struggle with the disease, which he bravely refused to hide. I don't think I would have liked the younger Ebert in person; but the dying Ebert moved me to tears.
This gripping documentary is a dramatic, chronological accounting of the fall of South Vietnam and the rescue of thousands of panicked refugees in late April, 1975. The film makers assembled remarkable contemporary footage, and fleshed out the news coverage at the time with effective graphics and interviews with many survivors, both American and Vietnamese. The film doesn't hesitate to apportion blame for the political debacle; but it also uncovers moving examples of bravery and altruism. This is the ideal use of the historical documentary form: re-examining and making sense of a familiar news event with the perspective of history.
Joe Manganiello, who was one of the actors in Magic Mike (and also a hot werewolf in the HBO series "True Blood") directed this documentary which goes behind the scenes at the real-life "Magic Mike" male strip club "La Bare" in Dallas, TX. There is a lot of buffed male pulchritude on view as the film tells the story of the dancers and entertainers of a variety of ages who ply their art for free-spending women at the club. The film depends to a large extent on interviews, and frankly the guys aren't all that interesting or insightful; and the film gives no clue that any of them are any less than totally heterosexual. The dancing sequences are well photographed, but fall short of the fiction film that was so obviously based on this club and these performers. Only when the film goes into the tragic story of a superstar dancer who was murdered in a bar brawl, does the film actually manage to seem non-trivial.
This is yet another documentary made from footage when journalists Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington were embedded with the infantry at Camp Restrepo, an army fort perched on high ground in the Afghani Korengal Valley. This film is all about the life at the camp, the camaraderie of the soldiers, and the prospects of life after serving their stretch. In lesser hands, this might have been just a collection of out-takes from previous films. However, thanks to outstanding editing the viewer actually gets to know some of these men. The film shies away from politics. Certainly the question of why we were there at Camp Restrepo (the soldiers themselves make fun of "hearts and minds") isn't answered. Apparently it was just to expend as many bullets as possible and attract the Taliban to their deaths like moths to a flame...and incidentally to try to bring the citizens of the valley into the 21st century, an exercise in futility.
I admire James Cameron as a film director, as an explorer and as a visionary. This documentary presents the processes of his privately financed project: building and operating a submersible vessel designed to take him to the bottom of the Mariana Trench at a depth of 36,000 feet. The mission plays as exciting, the danger real. I didn't watch this in 3D; but the underwater visuals were quite nice, if a tad disappointing for their lack of glamor shots. The film is designed as a gung-ho celebration of Cameron's vision in the guise of a scientific expedition. It has all the drama and suspense of a fiction film; but it all seems like a manufactured reality, the suspense somehow artificial. I think I'll wait for Avatar II,.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a Nigerian musician, singer and revolutionary. Apparently he was world famous; but, perhaps because I wasn't interested in his brand of AfroBeat jazz, I had never heard of him before this documentary. In any case, I've heard of him now from this intriguing, informative and entertaining documentary. The film mixes copious footage from Fela's life with scenes from the Broadway musical Fela!, in roughly chronological order. Maybe because Fela's music simply doesn't appeal to me personally, I found the film too long and repetitive to completely hold my interest. I'm certain that others will feel differently, even if only to admire him for apparently satisfying 24 or so wives.
As he never ceases to recount to the ubiquitous cameras, the subject of this often amusing documentary, John Wajtowicz (AKA "The Dog") was the real-life bank robber eventually played by Al Pacino in the movie Dog Day Afternoon.
This documentary brings together years of self-serving videos of Wajtowicz and those around him telling the real story of what happened that August day, and what happened to the principal characters afterwards (for this supposedly true story is stranger and weirder than the fictitious tale of the famous movie.) Or maybe not...because one gets the impression that Wajtowicz himself had trouble separating the reality from the media image. In any case, The Dog's salty language and insider view of the NYC gay scene of the 1970s is interesting enough.
An almost intact fossil of a T. Rex was found on disputed South Dakota land. It was named Sue, after the woman who discovered her; and a small local museum removed it to begin the painstaking process of reconstructing it (at the time it was the 13th T. Rex and most complete specimen ever found). This documentary recounts how an ambitious U.S. Attorney and a quagmire of U.S. tribal property laws worked to keep Sue in storage for years and send at least one of the supposedly altruistic paleontologists to federal prison.
The film starts as an interesting study of the activity of fossil hunting, illustrated by the well documented videos of Sue's discovery and excavation. But, just as with the famous media event it became, the film bogged down in the complexities of a legal process which defied explanation. One is left with the impression that justice wasn't served and that pure greed ruled the day...but the film falls short of proving anything except that Sue did eventually find a home.
In this light hearted documentary, a group of senior citizens in Toronto were mentored by some committed young people to acquaint them with internet computing. The elders eventually competed in a contest to determine who made the best YouTube video. The film makes some amusing points about the generation gap, and also demonstrates that there is still some life after retirement. The film maker-narrator involved her own family in the documentary, which personalized it...maybe too much so. But she was also lucky in her subjects, both the elders and the young mentors, all of whom had their wits about them.
Pamela Smart was a young married New Hampshire woman whose husband was murdered during a robbery. Four high school boys were arrested for the crime, and they accused Pam of planning and paying for the murder. It turned out that Pam, a high school employee, had been having an affair with one of the boys. Three of the boys received plea bargaining sentences which have freed one and left the other two eligible for parole in 2015, while the fourth was let go. But Pam was convicted of conspiracy and first degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole. The trial was televised and became quite a big deal, especially in New England. The case eventually was made into a tv movie staring Helen Hunt, a novel by Joyce Maynard, and a Gus Van Sant film with Nicole Kiddman and Joaquin Phoenix called To Die For, based on that novel.
This documentary painstakingly tells the actual story of the trial and aftermath. It presents a strong case that justice may not have been served. Smart was tried and convicted in the media; and there probably was reasonable doubt about the story the boys concocted. In this case there is no DNA evidence that will eventually save the day if Pamela Smart was indeed innocent. At the very least, the film joins a growing number of effective documentaries which cast doubts on a trial verdict.
Dinesh D'Souza has almost become notorious as a Conservative filmmaker, Obama hater, and imported (from India) apologist for American interventionism...especially Manifest Destiny and uncontrolled capitalism. Normally I might have skipped this documentary since I regard D'Souza as "the enemy." But it cropped up as a requirement of my Academy obligations, so I did watch it.
Surprisingly, if one disregards the editorializing, this isn't a terrible film. Perhaps it utilizes actors and historical re-creations too much to qualify as pure documentary. But the production values are never less than excellent. We're presented with extensive stories featuring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. And a vitriolic attack on leftist historians (particularly Howard Zinn, whose "People's History of the United States" textbook is savaged with an obvious bias.) But as the film progressed, the editorializing and (IMHO) falsehoods and unmitigated jingoisms could not be ignored. Outstanding cinematography, gung-ho patriotic music, and excellent casting of historical look-alike characters couldn't erase the partisan stench of right-wing propaganda.
This documentary proposes that providing iPods filled with music from dementia patients' past along with earphones to listen is an effective therapy which should be brought to nursing homes nationwide (and incidentally pushes for a charity to make this happen). To prove its point the film presents many startling anecdotal filmed sequences of severely inwardly directed Alzheimer's victims coming to life...waking up, so to speak. And it explains this by stating that the part of the brain that responds to music is the least affected by whatever causes dementia.
This is a feel-good film filled with a positive message on a vital subject. Actually, my own 95-year old mother could have been a subject of this film, deeply withdrawn into dementia. As difficult as this film was for me personally to watch, it also made such an impact that I am going to have to try this music therapy on my own mother to see how universal the message of this film actually is. However, I can't help but be suspicious when a film like this only shows the positive results, which may advance some profit for the supposedly altruistic charities . It seemed as if the remarkable successes were made on patients with a musical history. My mother has no such history. At least this film made me think, gave me hope, despite my skepticism.
Some members of a marine platoon in Afghanistan allegedly conspired to murder at least three innocent civilians and salt the site with fake evidence to justify the killings. This heartbreaking documentary tells the story of that platoon by following the judicial process of one accused private who, along with his ex-marine father, claimed that he attempted to be a whistleblower, but was afraid not to cooperate because of threats to his own life from fellow soldiers. As example after example of this modern day Catch 22 situation pile up, it's hard not to feel despair about the unintended consequences of these wars: My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and the Kill Team.
This muckraking documentary examines the deplorable state of juvenile justice in the U.S. (2 million incarcerated kids in one of only three nations that never ratified the United Nations children's rights treaty) by telling the story of two Pennsylvania judges who allegedly took kickbacks from privately owned juvie detention facilities. One in particular, whose courtroom systematically discouraged families from obtaining lawyers, boasted of his zero tolerance summary verdicts; and the powerless teenagers profiled in this film who were sent away for long sentences suffered greatly, even for trivial offenses. The theme of the abuse of power is nicely substantiated with interviews with some of the families; but the interview with the smarmy, self-serving ex-judge is the smoking gun here.
Kiki Melendez is a Latina comedian and celebrity. At least that is what this self-serving documentary claims. Personally, I had never heard of her even though I'm a long time Showtime subscriber and L.A. resident...venues where she apparently shines. In any case, this Dominican born, New York City raised entrepreneur's personality was so abrasive that I was more annoyed by this film than informed.
According to this informative documentary the current higher education paradigm is failing. State universities are being starved of funds, private colleges are forced into escalating expenses to attract students, student debt is over a trillion dollars (more than credit card debt), once free schools like Cooper Union are forced to charge tuition because of mismanagement. It is a seemingly never ending cycle of tuition costs escalating at a higher rate than any other necessity; and on a cost-benefit basis there is increasing doubt that a college degree is even worth the paper it is printed on.
On the other hand there are viable alternatives to the current system: experimental schools, the utilization of the internet (although pure internet students do poorly without contact with mentors, so some sort of hybrid system works better.) This film certainly laid the problem on the line; but became much more diffuse when it came to the solution. Through graphics and a wide range of examples, the film held my interest. But it seemed to fall short in presenting a cohesive editorial scheme.
Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis play two best co-dependent buds, Steve and Ben respectively...both examples of arrested development. Steve is a womanizing local tv weatherman, Ben a bipolar pot addict living in squalor. When Ben inherits a fortune it sets in motion a strange mixture of romantic comedy and journey of personal discovery. Neither genre works all that well. I didn't enjoy this film; but I have to admit that it developed in unconventional, unpredictable ways.
Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller are activist teachers, designers and builders. This documentary recounts their recent stint as unpaid teachers in an impoverished North Carolina high school. They enrolled ten students in a class called Project H, where the students learned to design building projects and bring their designs into fruition. The film culminates in the achievement of one of those designs: a large structure devoted to a local Farmer's Market. The film acquaints us in depth with the students and the two teachers.
This is a goal oriented film, mostly about the impediments to education of a hidebound school district resistant to new ideas, and the difficulties of overcoming intractable problems. It does this so well that the viewer shares in the experience and relates to these people. Pilloton and Miller ultimately were forced to go elsewhere; but Project H, as shown in this film was a huge and hopeful success.
Mike Boettcher is a long-time war correspondent for ABC. This documentary recounts his recent stint of being embedded with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan as they skirmished with the Taliban. For a year he took his grown son Carlos along; and they worked as a team for the first half of this film. The second half recounts the story Mike covered where a platoon was trapped and several American lives were lost in the rescue mission.
The immediacy and danger of the war videos came through the screen...this is nail biting stuff. We got to know some of the soldiers; but the rapport with them did not have the same kind of impact as the similar Sebastian Junger documentaries like the 2010 film Restrepo. That isn't necessarily a criticism, since this film's emphasis was more about what happened to the reporters rather than the troops. However, for me the action scenes were confusingly edited. It would have been helpful to have some explanation of the tactics and the larger picture. What we got was a grunts-eye view of the fights (including some difficult to process captured videos from the Taliban side). Which was amazing enough; but disorienting, diminishing the impact. Fog of war, and all that.
The film concludes with a moving ceremony honoring the dead soldiers. I'm just not sure that the film earned the emotional catharsis of this sequence since its involvement with individual troops was so sketchy.
Kirk Hanna was the second son of the third generation of Colorado ranchers and cattlemen. He believed in ecological ranching, and was one of the exemplary subjects of a previous book: Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation."
This documentary film tells Kirk's story, which is one of family discord and the myriad problems of modern ranching as the land is eaten away by the encroachment of city dwellers and their pollutants. This is a tragic story; but also a hopeful one in that Kirk's legacy seems to be catching on nationally. This is interesting material and well told; but I felt its interview structure didn't quite get below the surface to explain why the subjects of the film acted the way they did. Still, the plight of this family is symptomatic of much that ails this country nowadays, so the film is recommended viewing.
In 1926-27 the entire Mississippi River watershed flooded, breaching 145 levees and inundating entire areas, both rural and urban, to a depth of up to 30 feet. It was the worst flood in American history. Filmmaker Bill Morrison collected a great deal of contemporary B&W film, much of it water damaged or in various states of disintegration. He edited a silent, more or less chronological documentary of the destruction, cleanup and aftermath (mass migration of homeless Blacks to cities like Chicago.) The entire film is scored with a droning 4-instrument jazz track by Bill Frisell.
Frankly this film is boring. Its footage is repetitive, the music seems mostly too light and inappropriate for the visuals. Only a non-sequitur sequence of quick cuts of the entire 1927 Sears Robuck catalogue stuck in middle of the film held any special visual interest for me. Certainly this was an important historical event, and the film coverage was extraordinary. But with a minimum of interpretation (only an occasional title to give any context), one is left with an impression of randomness and poor editorial judgment. I had an overwhelming desire to watch the film in 2X fast-forward mode. I stifled the impulse; but at the end I rewound and watched some of it this way. The intolerably mundane musical score was silenced, and suddenly the editing rhythms seemed right and the powerful imagery made more of an impact.
In the 1930s two German families and a mysterious Baroness (and her two lovers) moved to the deserted island of Floreana in the Galapagos island chain west of Ecuador. They arrived separately; and they apparently lived in disharmony until some of them mysteriously disappeared, died or escaped the island. In any case, what really happened remains a mystery to this day.
Using a surprising amount of actual film footage from the time along with interviews with some of the children of the original group and others, the filmmakers have strung together the makings of a mystery thriller. Occasionally they would intercut ludicrous metaphorical scenes of animals in nature to heighten the mystery. But mostly this is an entertaining, stranger-than-fiction murder mystery. Or maybe not. One thing is certain...at this point nothing is certain about what happened back then and all the eye witnesses are gone. Bottom line: this film occupies the border area between documentary and fiction film; but either way it is diverting.
I guess many people know the Vivian Maier story; however it was all new to me. She was a French born nanny to a series of Chicago families, who in her spare time roamed the streets of that city and the world taking photos with her Rolleiflex camera. But she also created a trove of 8mm movies and audio tapes. Few of these photos were printed and many rolls of film were never developed. Still, maybe 150,000 images were shot, most of them proof of a genius photographer at work. And it was only when contents of her abandoned storage garages were purchased and exploited for their value by some people (including John Maloof, the co-director of this self-serving but fascinating documentary) did the strange and unique life and works of Maier come to light.
The highlight of this documentary are the photos themselves, hundreds of them edited into montages. They are, in my opinion, brilliant...a mid-20th Century album shot with an amazingly observant eye. But Maloof and his co-director Charles Siskel (son of the late Gene Siskel) have also done a fine job of reconstructing the life of this mystery woman through copious interviews with her charges and their parents, and a trip to the small Alpine village where Maier was born. If it all raises more questions than it answers (for instance, how could a nanny afford all those rolls of film?), the documentary still fascinates.
This documentary answers the question: can the collected media history of one brilliant raconteur, novelist, screenwriter, failed politician and gadabout sustain an entire film? It can if the subject in question is as smart and interesting as Gore Vidal. It also helps if one shares Vidal's liberal bent and pessimism about the path that the United States has taken during Vidal's lifetime. Just the sequences of the William Buckley-Gore Vidal debates on television during the 1968 presidential conventions are worth the price of admission; but there is much additional food for thought that Vidal expressed during his well observed life. This film is a prime posthumous example of what Vidal himself said are the four most satisfying words in the English language: "I told you so!"
The best advocacy documentaries find a problem, show its importance, prove its case, suggest a solution. And most importantly manage to be entertaining as well as informative. Fed Up does all this effectively and skillfully, if just a tad too repetitively.
Problem: obesity, especially childhood obesity, is an epidemic worldwide, but especially in the United States.
Reason it is important: the effects of overweight and obesity, and the resultant diabetes epidemic, will resound though future generations with increased health care costs...making the current generation of children the first in American history that will live shorter lives than their parents.
Prove its case: Fine graphics and great interviews with doctors, overweight children and concerned politicians illustrate the fact that the current paradigm of more exercise and reduced fat calories is false. Instead the film offers irrefutable proof that sugar and sugar substitutes are the real culprit, aided by the fast food industry and their lobbyists fostering a takeover of the school lunch program (e.g. pizza is made a vegetable by regulatory fiat, junk food commercials still rule the airwaves in children's tv shows) and eviscerating government regulations. The film makes the point that if a foreign power were to cause such mass destruction of our populace we'd undoubtedly go to war. But where is the war against the processed food giants?
Solution: See the film. I'm convinced. Anyway, eliminating processed food and sugar carbs sort of works for me, even though I remain stubbornly overweight. I'm weak. But I feel compassion for the helpless youth.
Elena was a pretty Brazilian girl who went to New York to be an actress. At the time she left her 7-year old sister Petra behind and disappeared. When Petra grew up, she traveled to New York to try to find her sister and direct this documentary. That is the set up for this impressionistic film, heavy with pensive voice-over and smeary cinematography.
I can't rate this film because I quit watching half-way through. As some may know, each year I try to watch all the documentaries that are submitted to the Academy of Motion Pictures to qualify for the Oscars. It is my calling in retirement...and last year I watched all 145 submissions (and was written up in an article in the Hollywood Reporter for having achieved that feat.) But very occasionally, and feeling guilty, I give up on a doc after watching at least 50%. It isn't so much that this particular film was not a worthwhile one - it was very arty and mysterious. Rather, it just didn't engage me. I'm quite sure that there is an audience for this film. But like last year's uniquely impressionistic documentary Leviathan, it's just not for me.
This performance rich documentary follows the extraordinary icon Elaine Stritch as she continues to perform one-woman shows in her 86th year. Stritch is outspoken and brave...few divas would allow such an unflattering view of old age. She has plenty to say; and many collaborators over the years give really good interviews. It's impossible not to be impressed by her energy, her talent, her sheer brass as the camera follows her around New York City and her home town of Detroit. It is also impossible not to regret that this ball of fire has been recently extinguished; but thankful that before she went she "Was Still Here!" and caught forever on tape.
Unfortunately, as wonderful as Stritch herself is, the documentary is aimlessly edited and feels sketchy and scatter-shot. It doesn't really matter since for me the film was so entertaining; but I fear that if one is resistant to the charms of this old trouper and her material that it just isn't going to work.
Juan Antonio Vargas is a 32-year old Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. When he was 12, his legal immigrant grandparents arranged to have him smuggled into the United States from the Philippines. Only when he applied for a drivers license at age 16 and his "Green Card" proved to be fake, did he realize that he was an undocumented alien. From that point on he lived in fear of being discovered and likely deported. He estranged himself from his family, especially the mother left behind that had given him up in hopes of giving her son a better life. He lived a lie...as he says it was far easier coming out as a gay man than as an undocumented person, which could have serious real-life consequences. And everywhere he searched he personally encountered insurmountable barriers to getting legal papers.
After years of this subterfuge, he publicly came out as undocumented in a New York Times Magazine cover article. This was in response to the growing immigration reform movement, especially the plight of those who arrived in the U.S. as innocent children. As he traveled the country speaking out and testifying at Congressional hearings, he made this often moving documentary film. The episodes where he finally attempted to get in touch with his birth mother after 20 years of estrangement were especially moving. Vargas personifies the case for immigration reform; and this film, although to some extent self-serving, is a fine example of how documentary films can raise awareness and hopefully effectuate change. However, as far as the film goes, Vargas' status is still in limbo.
Pierre Dulaine was born in Jaffa, Israel...son of a Palestinian mother and an Irish father. At age 4 he was relocated to the UK and became a world-class ballroom dancer. He returned to Jaffa for a year to teach ballroom dancing in five elementary schools; and this documentary recounts the story of that year.
Jaffa is a city made up of about 30% Palestinians, mostly Muslims who are resentful for what they call the "occupation," with cultural biases against opposite sex touching. Four of the schools were segregated, only one had mixed Jewish and Muslim students. But Dulaine's mandate was to bring cross-cultural pupils together, get them to dance as couples, and thus foster tolerance in the upcoming generation.
The film is nicely structured with a chronological arc culminating with a dance contest at the end of the year. Bottom line: this is a feel-good film which shows that perhaps the intractable enmities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be lessened by starting with the young.
Ryan McGarry, M.D. was a senior resident in Emergency Medicine at Los Angeles County hospital. He, along with several other 4th year residents had untertaken a five year project of shooting scenes in the ER and documenting the struggles of the doctors, nurses and administrators to serve their constituents in the country's busiest turn-none-away emergency room. They used a professional Red video camera, and shot much of the film themselves. And many scenes are bloody and deal realistically with actual death. This isn't material for the squeamish. Dr. McGarry is credited as film director...and even though he is the "star" physician of his own documentary, this is a professional job of documentary film making in every way: editing, writing, production values, with an important message. So far (it is early yet) this is the best documentary I've seen this year.
This isn't a film about Obama Care. If it has a political subtext it is that emergency medicine is in a funding crisis, a regulatory crisis, and a paperwork crisis, as day after day the waiting rooms fill up with the needy sick and injured, while understaffed hospitals are helpless to deal with it ("Code Black" refers to the situation where the ER is so jammed that waits of up to 24 hours are common.) What makes this film so special is the insider view from actual doctors as to what the crisis is about and how these fine young doctors are struggling to cope with and improve the system.
Dr. McGarry is one special guy. He was a stage IV cancer survivor in college himself; and he's fearless and brave on camera. But so are his fellow junior and senior residents and ER doctors. This is one film that edifies humanity at the same time it deals with the depressing truths about the so-called safety net. I can't praise this film highly enough.
At some unspecified future date society has been engineered to eliminate pain and differences by collecting the populace in gray, homoginized, drug controlled units. At his maturity, Jonas (attractive, dynamic actor Brenton Thwaites) is made a one-per-generation "receiver" of the group memory as taught by the elder known as the "giver" (a superbly grizzled performance by Jeff Bridges).
That is the set-up for a coming of age, dystopian science fiction film, which plays like a mash-up of Ender's Game and Huxley's "Brave New World." That isn't to say that the film isn't entertaining. Just watching Meryl Streep play an elder antagonist and Alexander Skarsgard play a ritual euthanizer are reasons enough to watch this film. But I couldn't help feeling that the issues raised in this film were overly simplistic and the conclusion too formulaic. I've never read the 1993 Lois Lawry novel; but I suspect that this isn't an ideal adaptation.
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are totally convincing playing George and Ben, an elderly New York City gay couple who have been together for 39 years and have decided to tie the knot in legal matrimony. As a consequence, George loses his job teaching music in a Catholic high school; and Ben's retirement income as an unsuccessful painter is insufficient to keep the couple in their converted condo. In dire straits, they are forced to split up and reside temporarily with family and friends.
That is the set-up for a remarkable inter-generational drama which plays so painfully real that occasionally it is hard to watch. Yet this touching film also celebrates life to a degree rare in today's cinema. Ira Sachs, who in his past oeuvre has shown a clear understanding of gay issues in such films as Keep the Lights On and The Delta, has co-written and directed a poignant contemporary chamber piece that hits every note. His supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei and teenager Charlie Tahan are fine; and even the music, made up mostly of Chopin etudes, perfectly underscores the themes of love, family, art and beauty.
In 2010, according to the smoking gun that this fascinating documentary presents, the corrupt five man majority of the United States Supreme Court made new law with the Citizen's United decision which effectively gave corporations more privileges than persons or unions when it came to contributing to political campaigns. Money talks.
The eponymous Koch brothers, rapacious billionaires who, from the perspective of this film, reportedly seek control of the U.S. government in furtherance of their greedy agenda, have poured millions to form and bankroll the Tea Party and particularly to support the union-busting, pro-business administration of Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, who survived a recent recall election. Walker outspent the opposition 20 to 1. Money sure talked there.
Pulling no punches, this is one muckraking documentary with a leftist agenda that states its case brilliantly, and with which I can wholeheartedly agree. That doesn't make it a perfect film. It is probably just going to preach to the converted, since pressure from the Kochs and their $20 million a year contributions kept this film from being shown on PBS as originally planned. The voters still aid and abet these modern robber barons against their own self-interest. Yes, money does talk volumes. And this well-written documentary shows how.
As a Californian, I could hardly be unaware of Cesar Chavez and his activities with the United Farm Workers. Back in the day I even honored the grape and lettuce Boycott he made into a national issue when he first organized the union. However, I guess I wasn't paying as much attention in 1988 when Chavez underwent a 36 day fast to protest the use of dangerous pesticides which were causing cancer in workers and their children.
This documentary intercuts chronological sequences of Chavez's life and union activities from the 1960s on with footage from the 1988 fast. The film is necessarily episodic and makes no pretense of balance...this is Chavez hagiography, an exposé of the plight of the mostly Hispanic farm workers, and a damnation of the evil corporate growers. Actually, there's nothing wrong with that...Chavez was a giant in the labor movement of the 20th Century, and deserves the recognition. For me, at least, the attempt to add drama with the editing scheme was a little obvious, and the film droned on tediously at times. Bottom line: good intentions, worthwhile subject, mediocre filmmaking.
This documentary explores cinema-verité style the present day lives of three elderly gay men. Dennis is 78, a closeted cross-dresser living alone in Florida, estranged from his family. He takes a temporary room in a gay retirement home in Portland, Oregon where he's able to let Dee, his inner woman, come out. But cutting ties to his home and possessions in Florida prove to be difficult for him.
Ty is a 60-something black activist in Harlem working for SAGE, a help agency for elderly GLBTs. He is involved with an older man and faces issues of where to go from here when same-sex marriage is legalized in New York.
Robert is the elderly owner of perhaps the first gay bar in Texas, a Galveston drag emporium called Robert's Lafitte. Robert is beset with health and legal problems and has handed most of his bar responsibilities to his younger gay nephew.
The film intercuts these three stories, and frankly despite my own personal interest in the subject matter, a little trimming of each story would have improved the film. (I'm an elderly gay man who could have been one of the subjects of this film except my life of mostly watching movies would be tedious in comparison to these men). However, bottom line: the theme of aging in the gay community is important and mostly unexplored in the media. Ageism is especially virulent in a culture of youth and beauty. Exploring the difficult lives of these three courageous men is a large step in the right direction.
Bing Russell was a minor league baseball player and a minor league television actor. But in the 1970s he shook up organized baseball by forming an independent A League team, the Portland Mavericks...replacing an AAA team that had failed in that Oregon city.
This documentary is Russell's story (he died in 2004), and the incredible, amazing 5-year success story of the Mavericks (e.g. multiple minor league attendance records) until his team was forced out of existence by the Powers That Be. There is a lot of archived footage; but the bulk of the film is made up of interviews with some pretty fascinating characters. Among them is Bing's son Kurt (movie star) who played for the Mavericks, Todd Field (actor, Oscar nominated director) who was the team's batboy, and Jim Bouton (major league pitcher, tell-all author, general flake) who made his comeback with the Mavericks after being banned from Baseball for a few years.
The film is straightforward and well made, if not at all flashy. I enjoyed it a great deal. I have a feeling that even those who are indifferent to the sport would find this film entertaining and informative. Rooting for the underdog is an American virtue...and Russell and his team facing the Goliath of Organized Baseball were the ultimate underdogs.
In 1991, I vividly recall listening to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary committee. I was traveling at the time, so I wasn't able to watch them, only listen. Back then it was all about law professor Anita Hill's testimony that Thomas had sexually harassed and abused his power against her when she worked for him a decade earlier. Such phrases as "Long Dong Silver" and "pubic hairs" were not your everyday political fare back then! But then came the personal smears against Hill...and I remember swearing out loud to the radio about the ignorance and duplicity of the Republican hatchet men on the committee, especially Senators Arlen F*cking Specter, Orren F*cking Hatch and Alan F*cking Simpson. It was fun to do; but then Thomas did get confirmed (by a 52-48 vote); and it was no longer even remotely funny.
Now, over 20 years later, Freida Mock has assembled a thorough and fascinating history of the hearings and the aftermath, concentrating on Hill's life in subsequent years. As in 1991, Hill comes off as a remarkable woman: smart, honest, upstanding, believable. The documentary is also about how Hill became a touchstone for the women's empowerment movement which has made such great strides since the hearings. I found myself choking up emotionally viewing the achievements of this remarkable woman. The film is tightly edited and benefits from an abundance of actual footage from Hill's life and times rather than depending on big-head interviews. Mock has made a career documenting strong women, and this film is another well-pointed arrow in her quiver.
Grace Lee Boggs is a nonagenarian icon: a visionary, leftist Chinese- American woman who, along with her now deceased African-American husband James Boggs, has long been a leader in the Black and labor movement (especially in Detroit). She espouses a philosophy which is part Hagel, part Marx, very much outspoken and, in its way, influential. The documentarian Grace Lee (no relation) has been visiting and filming this woman for years; and this film is a chronological telling of Boggs' life in conversations.
For me, this is an example of a well made documentary (superbly edited, thoughtful, with some uniquely interesting found archival footage) about a subject that just doesn't interest me all that much. That is my only criticism, and it is purely subjective.
In the annals of foodie films, this one comes up short. The story is predictable, more about multiculturalism than a paean to great cuisine...with an insipid love story tacked on. A culinary Indian family lands fortuitously in a small French village where a war starts with the neighboring Michelin 1-star restaurant owner (Helen Mirren with a weird French accent...you aren't Meryl Streep, Mme. Mirren!)
Lasse Hallström is an admirable director, one of the best in the business at portraying humanistic stories. He has found an ideal young Indian actor in Manish Dayal to play the budding 3-star chef; and the French countryside has rarely looked more appealing. However, it became obvious that Hallström wasn't the right director for this story: essentially he lacks an affinity for transmitting a love of food through the screen. The visuals are there, the "food stylist" did a good job. But the feast was wan and tasteless. Oh, how I wish that an Ang Lee (cf. Eat Drink Man Woman) had had a go at this material. That would have been bliss. As it is, this is just a frustrating, missed opportunity.
This is a film so affecting and of such personal resonance that I could have rated it anywhere from 4 to 5 stars. I need to get some distance to attempt to fairly judge it as a film. As an emotional experience it is strong, shattering, truthful, important. As a film, maybe not so much since it is more a political polemic and cry of rage by Larry Kramer, the playwright, than a traditional drama.
In the light of history and considering the similar films that have come before this, I can only wish that this film had been made earlier in the AIDS disease cycle (after all this is to some extent a repeat of the themes of the 1989 film Longtime Companion, but from an activist viewpoint.) Its message needed to be widely disseminated back when the play was first produced in 1985...the film might have done some real good had it been made then. However, that was a different world from the one we live in now...to a large extent because of the people and events portrayed in this film.
Bottom line: I can't fault director Ryan Murphy, who rather unexpectedly molded the material so well and got some of the best performances of their lives out of many of the actors (I'm talking to you, Matt Bomer!)
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist of worldwide renown. I had already witnessed some of his story in the 2012 film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. In that documentary he was already in trouble with the regime for living his political protests on Twitter. In the meantime Weiwei was jailed, then released on a year's probation while the government extorted $2.5 million for income tax evasion from his art company, Fake. Paraphrasing Weiwei: a fake charge on a Fake company.
This documentary was made during the year Weiwei spent restricted to Beijing, but reasonably free to create his art - except that he could not give press interviews, and contact with the internet was interdicted. Still the filmmakers managed to shoot a great deal of Weiwei's activities during this year, and much of that artist's irrepressible personality and humor shines through. Like the previous film, this one is overlong and necessarily episodic. But like the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who filmed his house arrest surreptitiously in the documentary This is Not a Film, Weiwei illustrates by participating in this project that the best offense against tyranny is great art and a positive attitude.
This is a film of such monumental badness that it took all my efforts to not walk out. After all, if one is to sit through this unfunny dreck, one still has to wait it out to watch the eponymous sex tape, doesn't one? Believe me, the final reveal isn't worth it except to ridicule the absurdity of the whole thing. In my humble opinion, Jason Segal will not survive this disaster as a romantic leading man. The dog in this film is a more credible hero. But for all that, Cameron Diaz escapes the carnage with an admirably frenetic performance. Ughums.
Gaspard is a young man celebrating the completion of his math masters degree by meeting up with his girlfriend Lena at the Brittany seacoast for a summer tryst. Lena doesn't show, so Gaspard makes friends with a sympathetic temp waitress Margot (a PhD ethnologist, no less), and falls under the spell of another pretty brunette more his type, Solene. Gaspard writes a song for Solene; but then Lena appears, and Gaspard is confused and affectionately torn between the three girls.
Gaspard is played by a young Melvil Poupaud, one of my favorite actors at the height of his physical attractiveness. All three girls are ravishing...and in the spirit of youth, Gaspard goes indecisively from girl to girl, unable to choose between them as he becomes their play toy. Even more than most Rohmer films, this one is extremely talky: scene after scene of conversations between the characters while they walk along the beaches and country paths. And frankly it becomes annoying when not much happens except for wall-to-wall vapid dialog. One wants to yell at poor Gaspard: "Get on with it! Make up your mind and pick one!" But Gaspard, in the spirit of youthfulness, doesn't have a clue. And this minor Rohmer film, like a light summer breeze, doesn't have much of a clue either.
Brody and Myles are two West Hollywood clones, best buds without benefits. Myles is the romantic type who overdoes the relationship schtick every time. Brody is the addicted to Grindr sexual compulsive type. They're both mid-twenties; but make a pact that in ten years if they are still single that they would settle down together. Cut to the inevitable title card: "Nine years, eleven months later."
This is a very familiar plot in straight rom-coms. But no matter how much gloss that director J. C. Calciano poured into the production, the film still seemed cheesy. For me, part of the problem was that Michael Adam Hamilton who played Brody is a terrible actor playing a smarmy character...a fatal combination. On the other hand, British actor Jack Turner (with a perfect American accent of course) is so good as the hapless romantic Myles, that it is as if he is in an entirely different movie...a gay romantic comedy that actually works.
Bottom line: casting is everything.
Michael Douglas plays a familiar role: the elderly curmudgeon widower, eventually humanized by the young granddaughter that he never knew existed before his estranged son dropped her off on his way to prison (of course for a non-crime...this is an old fashioned Hollywood film, after all.) According to the producer in a post-screening Q&A, this role was originally created for Jack Nicholson; and when Douglas was cast his role was made slightly less curmudgeonly. Even so, I felt no sympathy for this character, one of the many flaws of the film. It might have been more interesting if Nicholson had essayed the role.
Diane Keaton, on the other hand, plays a more original character. She is a 65-year old widow living alone in the apartment house that Douglas' character owns, eking out a living as a mediocre lounge singer with a good heart which she wears on her sleeve during her performances. Keaton runs with the role...her singing is the best thing in the film. Of course since this is a Nancy Meyers wannabe film, Douglas and Keaton spar incessantly; but we all know where this story is headed. However the relationship lacked the chemistry necessary to make me care.
Bottom line: where is the audience for this film? Rob Reiner has lost it.
If I could give a film 6-stars, this would be the one. On second viewing it was even better, more emotionally resonant, more of an historic achievement in cinema than was clear the first time around. This time I could appreciate things like how thoughtfully the film was edited. How a 12 year film project could look so seamlessly photographed. How very much like the rhythms of life itself found its way to the screen. And I was lucky to witness one of the best ever live interview discussions with the collaborators: Linklater, Arquette, Hawke and Coltrane. Whew!
The original Kick-Ass was like a breath of fresh air: a rule breaking, R-rated spoof of the superhero genre, with a truly demented performance by Nick Cage. Cage is gone in the sequel; but Jim Carrey replaces him with most of his charisma turned down. The three young breakout stars of the first film are back: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, buffed up and soulful; Chloë Grace Moretz, the little girl who can play twice her size; and Christopher Mintz-Plass, now a miscast, over-the-top villain.
The film is fun to watch, if only for its courage to be so outrageous. But there's not much mileage left in this franchise.
Fede is a cute gay college student who hooks up with an older, settled couple (8 years together) in a video chat room. The horny younger man arrives at the couple's high-rise apartment in Buenos Aires, they share conversation and a nice meal, and finally get down to a 20 minute, delightfully inventive three-way sexual romp (artfully shot to avoid full frontal). The entire 70 minute film has maybe 20 cuts: long takes, authentic dialog. It is about as realistic a representation of a certain aspect of modern day gay life as we're likely to see on film.
Make no mistake, this is an art film, not porn. Director Rodrigo Guerrero's intention was to capture the essence of the idealized, casual gay hook-up in the computer age; and I suspect he got it totally right. Kudos to all three actors...Nicholas Armengol and Carlos Echiverria are totally convincing as the mid-life couple spicing up their sex-lives. And adorable Emiliano Dionisi, complete with studded nipples and tat, is an ideal representation of his generation's attitudes. This film isn't going to be for everyone. Its unconventional narrative structure and tepid pacing will be interpreted as boring by some. But like Andrew Haigh's seminal 2011 film Weekend, this is a milestone in the development of a realistic gay cinema.
Yves Saint Laurent was a wunderkind. He was 5 years older than I; but I recall vividly a feeling of envy when he took over the House of Dior in his early 20s. I wasn't really a women's fashion maven until the advent of Project Runway. But Saint Laurent was something special; and without knowing anything about him and his world except what I read and saw in Paris Match at the time, he was somehow important to me in the abstract.
So it was with fervid anticipation that I looked forward to watching this biopic of his life, told more or less from the point of view of his once lover, husband and business partner, Pierre Bergé (an insightful performance by Guillaume Gallienne). As to Saint Laurent the man, I'm glad that the film personalized this shadowy figure. But, truthfully, this film didn't really add to my understanding of him. Certainly it clarified with many examples of his creations that YSL was a designer genius. And for sure Pierre Niney gave an eerie, wispy, true-to-life physicality to the titular role. Still, the very episodic nature of the narrative just played like highlights of his early career (it barely touched on the second half of his life after the 1970s). But the script didn't clarify or explicate his character beyond the obvious neuroses and shyness.
At least this is one biopic that presented its hero as unabashedly gay. And the production itself, with montages set to glorious Maria Callas arias, played up the gay angle, even if it was quite coy about any real sex. Bottom line: sumptuous costumes, scanty insights.
I was eager to see this film after watching the trailer. Director Bong returning to SiFi, where he made a mark with The Host and after the incredibly touching Mother, was too promising to miss on the big screen. Then there was that remarkable cast of seasoned actors: Chris Evans!, Jamie Bell!!, John Hurt!!!, Tilda Swinton!!!!, among others. To say that the film doesn't live up to the trailer is not an insult, since this was at the very least some thoughtful summer action fare.
However, all the fine acting and imaginative set design couldn't make up for the ridiculous premise. Not that an errant scientific experiment might go terribly wrong and destroy all life on earth. That is a real possibility. Not that a dystopian and stratified society might evolve from such a disaster. I could buy that. But that such a perpetually in motion train could be built in 2014 and operated for 17 years circumnavigating the globe along an infrastructure which couldn't possibly exist stretched credulity to the breaking point. Still, if you leave your left brain home, this film is loads of fun.
The good: I didn't even realize up to now how important Valli's (and songwriter Gaudio's) music was for me in my day ('50s and '60s). I could sing along with every single one of these songs. The actors were well cast and convincing singers. And director Eastwood captures the time and place with eery accuracy (which is becoming a trademark for him recently).
The bad: The script is intolerably paint-by-numbers, cliché biopic, even for a musical. And breaking the fourth wall by having the actors stop and narrate to the camera is especially annoying here.
The ugly: The pop music world portrayed here may be accurate; but it's such a downer. The aging makeup in the 1990 R&R Hall of Fame sequence is really bad. And those Jersey accents!
OK, I enjoyed this film, even if it was often cringe-worthy.
Michel Houellebecq is a famous French author and poet. In this curiously rudimentary film he plays himself being kidnapped for ransom by a strange family of weirdos. Not much really happens: a lot of talk, some clever and occasionally amusing repartee, but no feeling of actual danger. The film drones on much too long; but I was just curious enough to stick it out to the bitter end. And was disappointed even by that.
Juliette Binoche is excellent, as usual, playing Rebecca...fearless war photographer on assignment in Afghanistan, mother of two young daughters and wife (apparently in that priority of importance to her.) Despite the film's accurate representation of such horrors of war as child suicide bombers, this is a melodrama about the collateral damage done to the family when the mother has a dangerous calling. Every aspect of the film making was immaculate if a tad overwrought at times. The film had important observations to impart about the corrosive affects of terror. However, rarely have I felt more repelled by the subject matter of a film, as the script overloaded the dice against Rebecca in her struggle to balance career and family.
Cut Bank, Montana, is a little town of 3,000, advertised as the coldest place in the U.S. However, this comic caper thriller takes place in late spring; and the setting is anything but frigid. Liam Hemsworth, handsome behind a full beard, is a young man of dubious intelligence, determined to escape the provincial town with his pretty cheerleader girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) and enough money to make it in the big city. So he invents an elaborate, zany scheme to defraud the government of a $100,000 bounty. That's about all I'm going to say about the cleverly hatched plot, from Roberto Patino's script which lingered for years on the "Black List" of admired, but unproduced scripts. This is Coen Bros. territory, reminiscent of Fargo...but even more outlandishly nutty. The film benefits immensely from its cast of seasoned veteran actors: Bruce Dern, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg, who all have large roles to play in keeping with their well established movie personae. And it is beyond pleasurable to watch them interact, obviously enjoying themselves. I have a feeling that this film is destined for cult classic stature.
This large scale epic film tells the story of Simon Bolivar, scion of a wealthy landowning family in Spain's Venezuela Province, who led a successful revolution to liberate Greater Columbia from 300 years of colonial tyranny. The film roughly covers thirty years of his life, from 1800-1830. Edgar Ramirez was magnetic and dashing in the title role, even if his stolid mien gave little insight into what made the man tick. Other familiar faces (to an anglophone audience) were Danny Huston as a rich English supporter, and Gary Lewis and Iwan Rheon (who is making such a strong showing as Ramsay Snow in "Game of Thrones") as foreign soldiers who joined Bolivar in his war.
I found this film particularly informative up to a point, since my education included little about this George Washington of South America. However, the film seems to say that unlike Washington, Bolivar was unable or unpolitic enough to form a stable Union after defeating the Spaniards. But despite the film's lack of clarity about the historical context, it works as an intimate war epic, with well directed, huge battle scenes and immaculate period costumes and settings. This is stirring stuff; and the film has the size and weight adequate to its subject.
André Benjamin (AKA André 3000) from OutKast does an uncanny job of channeling Jimi Hendrix in this narrowly focused biopic. Because of problems obtaining rights to Hendrix's music, the film only covers the year or so period from 1966 to 1967, starting when Hendrix (going under the name Jimi James) was an unknown back-up guitarist in New York, through his relocation to swinging London where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and up to the invitation to perform at the seminal rock concert "Monterey Pop" (where, incidentally, I happened to have watched him play in person and was blown away by this previously unknown genius.)
The film could have used more of Hendrix's music, especially his vocals. Instead it concentrated on Hendrix's affairs and friendships with several girls, including posh Linda Keith (girlfriend at the time with Keith Richards), a plummy performance by Imogen Poots. Director John Ridley (who also wrote the inventive script) had a good eye for the period; but occasionally he would fall into some annoying editorial tics, such as playing a scene totally without any sound or conversely with sound only against a black screen. But the film belonged to Benjamin. Like him or not as an actor, one has to be impressed by the veracity of his guitar playing, and his convincing job of maturing his character as an artist.
Huge cast: covering both past and future of the X-Men. Huge production: many action sequences directed with unusual clarity. For once, comic book characters whose motivations seem particularly humanistic, even though they're mostly mutants. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of superhero epics; but this one almost made me care, which is head and shoulders above average. But I wish they would make an entire film around Evan Peters' Quicksilver character.
Two teenagers, both coping with cancer, meet in a support group. He's a charmer, she's ironic and plucky. As played by attractive Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, this is a touching, tragic love story. The acting is outstanding: not only the two young principals; but also effective are Sam Trammel and Laura Dern as her concerned, loving parents and Nat Wolff as his best bud, losing his eyesight. Only an unlikely subplot involving an ex-pat author (Willem Dafoe) and a trip to Amsterdam seemed forced. This is an effective tearjerker.
The best special f/x of the series so far. Andrew Garfield still has a likability index that is off the charts. The plot doesn't suck...there's just too much of it.
The bad: Marc Webb is a lousy director of actors, although he's pretty good at action scenes. It's another stupid, nonsensical comic book flick, and the marking-time, middle film of a trilogy to boot.
The ugly: All three major villains (Electro, Green Goblin and Alexei) are ugly and overdone; but Paul Giamatti leads the field.
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The English have a specialized genre that is hard to duplicate: the semi-comic, but full-on violent gangster flick. Guy Ritchie makes bad films in this genre. Martin McDonagh makes good ones. This film falls sort of in the middle...over-the-top characterizations like Ritchie, but clever writing, approaching absurdity, like McDonagh. Jude Law exudes heat here. The genre excludes Oscar possibilities; but this performance should be up there. Just the opening monologue extolling his own cock is the stuff of acting legend. The film is short and tightly plotted (if mostly ridiculous and predictable). I'm giving it an extra half-point for its unique visual style, which I found intriguing.
David Gordon Green returns to familiar territory for him (father-son-father surrogate). There are eerie similarities between this film and Undertow, with Tye Sheridan doing quite well as Jamie Bell's replacement. This film is tough to love, however. All the characterizations lack subtlety (although the actors generally do a good job adding nuance.) Nick Cage has been getting a bum rap lately for his choice of roles; but here I think he did his best job in years. Perhaps casting Sheridan in the youth role raises unfair comparisons to the similar, but superior film Mud.
A film which exposes my weakness as a cineaste. I recognize its originality, the sheer, bleak beauty of its visuals, the eerie score which hypnotized me. I love Scarlett Johansson, even though this role doesn't illustrate at all what I love about her, except damn it, she's the most formally interesting actress making films today. Honestly I didn't get the point of the film until the reveal at the end...so maybe a second viewing is needed. But I won't go there since I found the narrative so annoyingly obtuse to begin with. As much as I hate to admit it, abstract cinema just isn't my bag. Boo me!
I was catching up with the TV movies on my DVR and came upon this little gem about how Alfred Hitchcock tortured and sexually harassed his last muse, Tippi Hedren, while making The Birds and Marnie. The film featured superb acting by Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, who both captured the essence of their real-life characters with eerie fidelity. As I recall, this film was released on HBO about the same time that the bigger budget studio film Hitchcock came out. This was the superior film, and Jones was creepy and wonderful as Hitch (he did a similar thing with Truman Capote, doing a better job of playing that familiar persona than the more publicized (and Oscar winning) major studio creation.)
Which witch is the good witch? Actually none of them...here they are "casters." This southern witchcraft Gothic romance (mortal boy loves caster girl, all hex breaks loose on her 16th birthday) is actually sort of fun. Think Carrie in the Addams family. Oh, I could poke dozens of holes in the plot. But it holds together better than most of these supernatural films (not a genre I'm partial to.)
Young high school exchange student from England (of course she's over 18) and her older (married) music teacher are fatally attracted to each other. Even more convenient, the girl is staying at the teacher's home for her overseas semester. OK, the girl is nymphet of the moment, Felicity Jones (although her playing 18 is a stretch); and the man is devastatingly attractive Guy Pearce, complete with beard and American accent and wife and teen-age son. Also, nothing much happens because the characters are just as squicked out by the arrangement as the audience (at least this member of the audience.)
Director Doremus is an American version of Mike Leigh, letting his actors improvise almost all of the dialogue, and it shows in the overall slow pacing. The film is competently made, well acted, with a cinematographer well versed in following improvised action. However I was annoyed by the very coyness and irresolution of the central affair. Forgive me if I preferred the gay version of this story, Ventura Pons' 2002 film Food of Love.
As a confirmed Wes Anderson detractor, how could I possibly rate this film 4-stars? OK, I can admit when I'm wrong...or at least when Anderson surprises with a well made film with his patented whimsical silliness firmly under control.
Especially impressive: large cast perfectly balanced with dozens of character actors (but newcomer Tony Revolori as the young Zero and next-to-unidentifiable Tilda Swinton as Madam D. stand out.) Also Alexandre Desplat's Eastern-Euro flavored score is among the best scores of recent years (the balalaika infused end-credit music and animation was inspired!). And Adam Stackhausen's production design worked perfectly in sync with Anderson's wacko visual style.
I don't think I'll ever be an Anderson aficionado...for my money he works too hard at being eccentric and almost always comes off as precious and banal. But when the precisely right script falls into his wheelhouse, I have to admit that I can be enchanted.
Despite the mind-numbing predictability of its cookie-cutter Marvel hero-triumphs-over-evil plot (although with a clever final twist), I have to admit that this film mostly worked for me. No, it wasn't the giganticism of the CGI constructs nor the physics defying action figures. On a rational, intellectual level this is merely adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy run amok, with its human, but somehow super-human heroes and villains living their unsubtle, exaggerated lives.
And yet thanks to the fine casting of actors whose humanity somehow shines through their cliched personae...plus some nifty action sequence direction which made the impossible seem, well if not likely then inevitable, I was able to defy disbelief and go with it. But just barely. And yes, I'll watch the next chapter despite misgivings...mainly because of the unusually emotionally tense interaction between the characters portrayed by Chris Evans and Sebastian Stans. And, oh yeah, I can never get enough of Scarlett Johansson.
The New York Times contacted me today for background about my review of El Topo that was published in the L.A. Free Press on April 23, 1971. They provided me with a scan of the article, and I'm reposting it here. Maybe 43 years later its verbiage is a little embarrassing; but I stand by what I wrote back then. How often do we get an opportunity to view what we thought about films through the prism of the far past experience? Let this be a lesson for all you younger reviewers on letterboxd...chances are in the far future you might be confronted with your writings, since nothing on the internet is truly ephemeral...just the way that nothing in print ever was.
'EL TOPO' HEROIC MYTH
There's this film around, and it's pretty amazing stuff, you better believe it. It's called El Topo, which means "The Mole;" and it was made in Mexico by a man named Alexandro [sic] Jodorowsky. El Topo is a creature that thrives in the darkness. But, if per chance he is exposed to life-giving light, he is struck blind. In essence, the film is a myth about gods (or maybe even Gods); but it is really the finest job of translating the heroic fantasy to the screen that has ever been done.
The only way to talk about this film is in superlatives. This is no hack foreign film. Done with simply amazing technical competence, the color photography and visual effects are among the best ever seen - and that includes the best Hollywood efforts (which are so often empty of anything except good photography.)
But the greatness of this film surpasses the purely technical. Summarizing the plot wouldn't do it justice, because we are talking about a black religious (or perhaps antireligious would be more like it) myth. It plays like a weird amalgamation of a Roger Zelazny novel, Homer's Odyssey and the Bible as it might really have been lived. Zelazny writes sweeping epics of titanic struggles between god-like entities. (The conception of this film falls midway between Isle of the Dead and Lord of Light.)
The hero of the film reminded me of Jehovah, the anthropomorphic God of the Old Testament. Certainly the quest that he goes on to defeat the four great masters of the universe in turn in order to prove that he is the greatest master of all (and which takes up the first half of the film) is worthy of a God. But this is not our universe that this takes place in. I'm not sure that it is possible in print to do justice to a description of the world of this film. It's a place which superficially is like the Old West hallucinated on an acid trip. In addition there is an underground world peopled by freaks dressed in mufti, who have deified the hero and charged him with digging a tunnel out of their bleak world and up into the acid-fantasy world above.
It's all indescribably weird, and totally convincing. I don't think I've ever seen a film where worldly images were so well done. In fact, superlative imagery is one of the things about the film. Scene after scene Jodorowsky surpasses anything Fellini (who is no slouch at producing magnificent, if usually meaningless, images) has ever done. Really, it's incredible. Anybody who has seen Ken Ishikawa's Fires on the Plains knows how strong stark visual imagery can be when it's done at its best. In El Topo the imagery is equally strong and memorable - only it's done in color, which is infinitely harder to make real.
This is a strong film. There is far more gore in its long, but swift-paced two and a half hours, than there was in Bonnie and Clyde. But this is a myth, remember. I think if the Bible were ever portrayed realistically, it would be bloodier than any film we've had. But El Topo runs RED, with castrations, beheadings, shootings, and mass murders which make the Sharon Tate scene look like kindergarten fare in comparison. It can be hard stuff to take. At the screening I saw the film at, with a pretty hip and experienced audience in San Francisco, some people couldn't take it. But all the gore, death and destruction serves a purpose in a primitive religious myth. And I think the effect on modern audiences is liberating: breaking down barriers of civilized conditioning and reaching places in our souls which are rarely touched.
This film is full of set pieces: countless short trips which are done with brilliant imagination. Each of the duels with the four masters of the universe is such a trip. Each different, each titanic. The one that stands out is the Zen Master who has so mastered the art of controlling his body that he can make bullets pass through the empty spaces between his flesh. Our hero has to best him in a shoot-'em-out.
The film is also filled with unique and far out freaks. It seems as if the minor characters must number in the thousands - and all of them are really weird. Like the amazing assortment in the Satyricon, only here it all coheres and serves a purpose to set up the different Universe we see as so real. Our character stands out in this literal army of novel creations: two deformed men functioning as a symbiotic pair - one with no legs who sits astride the shoulders of another with no arms.
And for all the fact that the film is such a visual masterwork, it also works entirely in terms of psychological undertone and meaning. I don't think anyone is going to get through this film without feeling at gut level that the human condition has been illuminated at the highest level. The characters are supernatural entities; but there is metaphor aplenty to us and our world. Practically the entire gamut of degenerate human activity is explored. From the ultimate in sadism, to the most brutally frank Lesbianism and homosexual eroticism I've seen outside of the pornos. But it's quite well done, not at all pornographic, as it's done purposefully to illuminate larger themes. Everything hangs together in this grand conception.
Like that other great mythic film of our times, 2001: A Space Odyssey, El Topo can lay claim to being the greatest film ever made. It's not going to be to everybody's tastes. There are some things man was not meant to know. But if you can take the gore and the acid-bummer strangeness, this is the most rewarding film you'll see in a long while. Let's hope some distributor picks up on it soon, so that we can see it here in Los Angeles. Remember that title, El Topo, and watch for it.
This is yet another sensitive teen-age boy coming of age film...a genre that I often like far more than the films usually merit. Here we have proto-gay 18-year old James angsting over whether he should go to college or admit that he's attracted to the older man who works for his mother in her art gallery. Toby Regbo plays James with an attractive intelligence that promises a successful future career. Marcia Gay Harden and Peter Gallagher play James' Waspy, divorced parents, and their portrayals are fresh and sassy enough. But it is Ellen Burstyn, as the wise grandmother who steals every scene she's in (per usual.) For all its cookie-cutter plot, I liked the film...a guilty pleasure.
This film played at the local Italian film festival under the name "The Third Half" (apparently a rugby term for what happens after the two halves of the game are finished.)
Samuel is a teenager who has just been released from the Italian equivalent of Borstal. He's paroled into the care of ex-rugby star Vincenzo, who coincidentally is coaching a failing rugby pro league team. Unsurprisingly, what follows is a story of a bad boy's redemption through sports.
Except this film does manage to rise above its cliché story. Some of that has to do with the lead actor. Lorenzo Richelmy is totally convincing and charismatic as the boy who has to toughen his body and mind to become a rugby player. With any luck this role will lead to future stardom following what the similar bad boy soccer film Goal! did for Kuno Becker (well, Becker is a star somewhere, if not in America.)
Kudos also to Stefano Cassetti, convincing as the grizzled mentor with issues of his own. Personally, I knew nothing about rugby going into this film; and I still don't quite understand the sport despite some incredible, even thrilling, slo-mo game footage. But this isn't really a sports film, rather an appealing and uplifting coming-of-age flick.
Watched at the L.A. Italian Film Festival under the title "The Medicine Seller."
Bruno (a dour, effective performance by Claudio Santamaria) is a drug salesman for a large pharmaceutical firm, which pushes its sales force unmercifully to achieve impossible quotas. That's the set-up for a tense, scary thriller which purports to blow the lid off of the shady practices of the drug industry...bribing or extorting doctors, faking side-effect studies, ruining lives. Director Morabito plays all the right notes for effective drama and suspense. But I couldn't help but feel that the script overplayed the theme of unregulated corporate evil.
I watched this 1999 Italian/Israeli melodrama at the local Italian film festival. Amazingly enough it was actually presented in wide-screen with a pristine new film print. That's rare enough these days to be remarkable. Even though it was in English and the lead actor was the familiar Ciarán Hinds, this obscure film earned its obscurity with a script that went nowhere and actors who were all over the place, some fine, some totally defeated by dialogue that no real person would ever speak. I'd go into more detail; but it's hard to justify writing another word on such a bad film.
The title of this film is a pun which offers insight into both the pluses and minuses of this family story and thriller all mishmashed into one film. It can't quite decide what it really wants to be.
First off is the touching family story of an ex-CIA killer, dying of cancer, who is anxious to re-establish contact with his estranged teenage daughter...three days to kill time in Paris trying to do that and put his affairs in order.
Second off is a confusing thriller where that same ex-CIA killer is bribed by a young femme fatale CIA operative to return to action...three days to kill The Albino and The Wolf, two international terrorists.
Kevin Costner is convincingly grizzled. Amber Heard is ridiculously over-the-top and unrealistic as the femme fatale agent. Hailee Steinfeld holds her own as the daughter. Luc Bresson's original story had some real promise as a different sort of intimate spy thriller. But as executed by McG (with a relatively small budget), the thriller part simply doesn't work, which leaves the film well short of satisfying.
Discovery Channel's mini-series about the 1897-8 gold rush in the Yukon ran 6 1/2 hours including copious commercials. In the re-run, at least, it was shown all in one fell swoop. At least it was presented continuously, and not as if a bunch of episodes were strung together, each one having a title sequence.
Even so, I took a couple weeks to watch it all (what is the opposite of "binge watching"?) The A-list cast, headed by Richard Madden, <SPOILER!> the late lamented Rob Stark from "Game of Thrones", Abbie Cornish, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson and Sam Shepard are all fine. The production looks expensive and it certainly is definitely authentically icy. However, the script...well, it develops lugubriously and cliches abound. It's all pretty predictable, even if it is based on "history."
This film is an addition to that rare sub-genre, the "Gay Teen Romcom," which was so ably represented by the almost unnoticed G.B.F. earlier this year. In this film Mike and Matty are best buds, living the "American Pie" dream of getting laid before senior prom. That is until one of them comes out to the other (and his girlfriend) as a "gay dude." The comedy develops organically and with a great deal of perception following this disclosure.
The young actors are uniformly excellent, especially Hunter Cope who is nicely unstereotypical (yet totally realistic) as the boy on the cusp of coming out. Nicholas Braun continues to develop as a fine young comedy lead; and Dakota Johnson (soon to be thrust into fame in the Fifty Shades of Gray series) is quite good as the understanding girlfriend.
This film is getting a very tentative release by Lionsgate. As timely and as well written as it is, there's still a certain kind of genre ghettoizing that is keeping films like this from breaking into the mainstream. It's also problematic (at least in my view) that these films still limit any actual sex scenes to hetero (even if one of the participants is supposed to be gay.) This comes off as lame pandering to the notion that the youth audience is still too prudish for gay teen sex, even in a supposedly raunchy teen sex comedy. Well, raunchy this film isn't. Fun, poignant, illuminating and funny it is. Worth catching on video if it doesn't totally disappear.
This was the final nail in 2013 Oscar's coffin for me...now I've seen every film and am ready to vote. Basically Ernest & Célestine is an animated adaptation of a kids book which asks the question can a clever young girl mouse and a "big bad" huggy bear be friends. For the grown-ups the film also satirizes social structures and the court system. The 2D animation was simple and artistically rendered; and the film was shown in the original French with subtitles. I'm actually sorry I wasn't able to watch the English language version with such actors as Forrest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti and Megan Mullally.
For me the film never quite gelled into anything more than a naughty-but-nice children's fairy tale. Compared with other more sophisticated French animations (for instance The Triplets of Belleville), this was a disappointment.
Honestly I've never seen one of the Jackass films, nor have I ever wanted to! However this one snuck into an Oscar nomination (for best make-up/hair styling), so I was obliged to watch it.
Very quickly I figured out that this was a modern, transgressive version of Alan Funt's "Candid Camera" TV show. In this case a much younger man, made up to look 80-something, embarks on a contrived road trip with his dead wife's corpse and his 8-year old grandson, wrecking havoc to much onlooker horror and a certain amount of audience reflexive laughter. The kid was adorable, and Knoxville has admirable acting chops, literally never going out of character.
I'll cop to some great make-up, although the trick was lost on me because I had no idea what the performer, Johnny Knoxville, looks like in real life. Only watching the end-credit gag reel did I get some idea of the real Knoxville's appearance, and then only for a split second. Actually, the entire film is edited like a compilation of gag reel episodes, anyway...what little plot is simply pretext for the juvenile fart jokes and asinine pranks. Yet I laughed...repeatedly. Yep, you got me too, Jackass!
I am usually not a fan of Hollywood animation films. But at least this one kept me intermittently interested...if only trying to figure out who was voicing the characters. Nick Cage and Catherine Keener were obvious...they have totally distinctive voices. I couldn't identify the leading ingenues, however. Let's face it, there is nothing distinctive about Ryan Reynolds' voice. And I guess I haven't watched enough Emma Stone movies to recognize her. I could picture Clark Duke from his character's voice...but annoyingly couldn't remember his name. And Chloris Leachman...well, she's too great an actress to have only one voice. At least this game gave me something to do to instead of rolling my eyes at the nonsensical plot.
OK, now that I've disclosed the game I always play with these sort of films (I never check the casts beforehand), at least I can add that I've seen far worse this year. And NO talking animals, and NO musical numbers. I have to raise the rating a full half point for those blessings. The 3D was meh; but the score was great (loved the use of Lindsey Buckingham's "Tusk" for the big opening chase scene.) Better than average 3D character animation...they did an especially good job with Guy. It's a tradition for young male animated characters to be insipid; but Guy actually had a certain bare-chested sexy quality.
As I said before, I've seen worse!
This short documentary follows the slow death of an Iowa prison lifer, being cared for by other prisoners. It might have been emotionally shattering; but the pacing is lugubrious and Jack Hall isn't very sympathetic.
In this documentary short, a 69-year old doctor abandoned his career and the rat-race of L.A. life to become a rollerblading beach-combing mystic nicknamed Slomo. He's an interesting man (incidentally a contemporary of mine, so I should have related); but still the film never got deeply enough into the man to understand exactly why he underwent such a dramatic transformation.
Documentary short about the Arab spring uprising in Yemen in 2011. Two cameramen on the ground bear witness to the actual slaughter of protesters. The contrast with what happened during the Egyptian events in Tahrir Square (in such docs as The Square is quite illuminating. The incredible material is strikingly vivid. One marvels at the courage of the cameramen and filmmakers.
The rom-com genre is alive and well. All it takes is a couple of attractive principals with palpable chemistry and perfect comic timing (thank you Andy Samberg.) A script which contravenes most of the traditional conventions of the genre...but in a way that seems real (thank you writer/actor hyphenate Rasheda Jones). And a young director who knows how to fit all the parts together (bravo! Lee Toland Krieger...I'll watch your next flick for sure.) I loved this film when it first came out. And even though I've made a solemn pact to not watch movies a second time (at 72 I'm afraid I don't have enough time left to get stuck on doing replays), this one was worth it just for the warm fuzzies a smart, well done, bittersweet rom-com provides when, against all odds, it really works.
Joel Russ emigrated from the shtetls of Eastern Europe and founded a Lower East Side Manhattan fish "appetizer" deli a century ago. His three daughters and their progeny have run "Russ & Daughters" on Houston St. ever since. This film is the amusing and affecting story of the store, it's past, present and future. It is structured like an infomercial; but it is actually a well made documentary, with interviews from the principals both behind and in front of the counter that are really well shot and edited. I've never heard of this place; but the film convinced me that if I'm ever in Manhattan again, my first stop is Russ & Daughters for the herring, or maybe the aptly named "Heebster sandwich"...but for sure the paper thin cut lox!
I've always looked forward to Whit Stillman films (he's only made 4 in a quarter century); but somehow I missed this one when it came out. Stillman has a unique blend of smarts and trendiness, which probably annoys many...but all of his films hit my sweet spot. His characters seem familiar (although much younger than me) and approachable, intelligent and verbal. It's like mentally sparring with my best friend from college. Stillman's dialogue sparkles here with its usual wit; but the script peters out with the narrative unresolved, sort of like the entire disco era itself.
This film is both an homage to New York and its early 1980's disco scene, and a story about its inevitable demise due to excess, drugs and the imminent advent of AIDS (unmentioned in this film, but lurking in the background.) His two main characters, saucy Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and sweet Alice (Chloé Sevigny, luminous as usual) are negotiating the rigors of the era: work, love affairs, railroad apartments, wild nights. But the guys are equally vivid...Stillman regular Chris Eigeman (clearly the writer/director's personal avatar) is fine, as was Mackenzie Astin and the young Robert Sean Leonard (playing against type as a slimy heel). But for me the standout was the actor Matt Keeslar, handsome, talented and unaccountably disappeared from films. I did some research and discovered that Keeslar gave up acting and is now supporting his family as a nurse in Portland, OR. Good for him, but bad for me since I loved him as an actor.
The film has a superb disco soundtrack. I can't help but be nostalgic for that era; and Stillman's musical choices were perfect. This film came out the same year as the similarly themed 54; and it apparently got lost in the shuffle. But it is much the better film, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it.
I'm a fan of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. His ascerbic humor hits my funny bone; and maybe there's even a bit of identification there (oldish, bald, Jewish, neurotic). This film is like an extended episode of that HBO series with a bunch of talented guest stars (Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber) and a Martha's Vineyard locale. There were a couple of well earned guffaws; but the film stretched its minor premise (man loses billions by bailing from a tech start-up before it goes big and disappears into obscurity holding a grudge) further than it deserved. But David was the man who invented a "show about nothing." And he has the cockeyed knack of making his "nothing" into something that turns out to be well structured farce.
Three elderly men and a teen-age boy hatch a bank robbery plot in this clever Israeli comedy (sort of a reverse on The Over-the-Hill Gang story.) The two elderly Israeli men, who live in an old-folks home, get involved with an English Lord (played with utter panache by Patrick Stewart) and the boy genius grandson of one of the men (an inspired performance by young Gil Blank). What ensues is a memorably zany and totally convincing caper film that is just original enough to be both funny and fun.
A Swiss radio team travels to Portugal during the 1974 "Carnation Revolution," military coup which overthrew the country's dictatorship. That's the set-up for a mostly unfunny fish-out-of-water comedy where most of the humor comes from one elderly correspondent with mild dementia massacring the Portuguese language (something that doesn't translate well into subtitles.) The film tries to be funny and also relevant, but mostly fails at both.
The place, Casablanca, Morocco late 20th century. 15-year old Abdella is growing up secretly gay in a large strife-torn family. He encounters older men and is exploited sexually (although it isn't clear whether he is doing it for money or just part of his passive nature.) After an uneventful trip to the seashore with his two brothers, the film shifts 10 years into the future where Abdella is now an impoverished exchange student wandering the streets of Geneva, Switzerland and moving into a Salvation Army hostel.
That's about it for story. Apparently the film is somewhat autobiographical...the director Abdella Taïa scandalously came out in 2007. The film does present an interesting aspect of what a gay Arab boy goes through in an oppressive society of shame and transgressive homosexuality. But despite looking authentic, the film just failed to deliver anything more than a moody character study. And for all that, the main character remained a cypher throughout the entire film.
On a sparsely traveled highway in the Australian outback a trucker discovers a murdered Aborigine girl. The case is given to an out-of-favor indigenous cop; and it turns out this murder is only the tip of an iceberg of corruption and drug trafficking. The plot develops confusingly...several characters become vital to the case without much set-up. Or maybe I just lost concentration because of the slow pace and paucity of action until the final (unbelievable) shoot-out on a bluff overlooking Mystery Road. The film had atmosphere and interesting characters; but failed to present a coherent mystery story.
This film played at the Palm Springs Film Festival under the title A Five Star Life. Margherita Buy is smart and classy playing Irene, a single woman who travels around the world staying at five-star hotels as a "secret client," rating the establishments on their service and facilities for a travel magazine. She has a friendly, Platonic ex-boyfriend (a nicely moderated turn by the charismatic Stefano Accorsi), and a married sister who has two young daughters. But fundamentally she is self-reliant and maybe a little lonely. In the film Irene travels to several countries, always living an alluringly deluxe lifestyle (suites, butlers, the whole nine-yards.) The film is an absolute delight to watch - not exactly a romantic comedy, but an intelligent, grown-up movie imbued with the romance of exotic places. This may be some people's idea of a wish-fulfillment fantasy; but it is one that is thoroughly steeped in reality with characterizations of exceptional depth.
Five minutes into the film I was convinced that I had already seen it, and sure enough I had back in April, 2013. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it a lot more than I had nine months ago. This time I appreciated the feisty performance of Sybelle Brunner, who plays the gay protagonist's elderly mother. Her performance was spot-on perfect. I think the first time I was put off by my projecting my own relationship with my mother into the narrative. It struck too close to home for comfort. This time I was able to distance myself enough to enjoy the subtlety of the middle-aged author Laurenz and his off-again, on-again relationship with the much younger Mario. This time, the admirable acting by Fabian Krüger and Sebastian Ledesma won me over completely. I'm glad that I programmed this film by mistake at the Palm Springs festival.
Rocco Granata is a real-life, once-famous Italian crooner, raised in post WWII Belgium by his stern coal miner father (played by the fine Italian actor Luigi Lo Cascio.) This film is adapted from Granata's reminiscences of his youth, especially his relationship with his father, who couldn't accept his son's interest in music. The film is given a rather traditional biopic treatment, with the young actor Matteo Simoni playing the youthful Granata with a great deal of charm and a convincing way with handling the accordion and singing his first hit "Marina." But the relationship of father to son (along with the adoring mama), is the stuff of movie clichés. Of course most biopics about artists or musicians are by their very nature predictable. Yet, despite the novelty of Calabrian Italians living and working in Belgium, the film presented one stock story device after another, so unexceptional as to defy belief.
Based on Chekhov's "The Seagull," this is the story of a group of family and friends who have gotten together in 1984 at the country cabin of Herb, an older man with AIDS. Herb is played by William Hurt, in his patented laid-back mode. His once famous actress sister (Allison Janney) is making a Norma Desmond type appearance, arriving by train along with her new husband, a famous movie director (played by the film's real director, Christian Camargo.) Also in attendance, Ben Whishaw as Janney's "artistic" son, and several other famous players (Katie Holmes, Jean Reno, Michael Nyqvist, Cherry Jones etc.) This is a chamber piece in the mode of Robert Altman lite. But even though the actors are splendid and the direction adequate, somehow the film seems familiar and dated. And a little pretentious.
Luc is a good man, potentially the CEO of a large Belgian conglomerate. But his life is shattered when his wife and daughter are senselessly killed in an aborted gas-station hold-up. When the perpetrator is let off by a legal loophole, Luc takes vengeance into his own hands. The film is all about Luc's subsequent trial. By focusing totally on showing all the testimony and arguments of the various advocates from the unseen jury's point of view, the film became a smart and relevant exploration of the issues of justifiable homicide and jury nullification. Koen De Bouw is fine as the brooding, bereaved man at the center of the (fictional, but realistic) Belgian "trial of the century." There are lots of fascinating issues presented in this beautifully written film...but mainly it took this viewer right into the difficult dilemma of how I would vote if I were on that jury. This is a legal thriller of the highest moral and intellectual caliber.
Kim Rossi Stuart, an Italian actor that I admire greatly, plays Guido, a struggling avant-garde artist and family man in 1970-era Italy. The story is told from the future point-of-view of the older of Guido's two young sons, and feels particularly lived in (probably because it is clearly at least partially based on filmmaker Luchetti's own family and childhood.) Guido's wife (played by the beautiful Micaela Ramazzotti) is jealous of the artist's nude models, and eventually resorts to a lesbian affair to even the score. The couple definitely have a fiery relationship which is well observed by their sons. The film is a fine evocation of its era, and manages to be an affecting family story in addition to a realistic portrayal of the Italian artistic temperament at its most passionate.
This film played at the Palm Springs film festival as Age of Uprising: the Legend of Michael Kohlhaas. I had seen Volker Schlöndorff's previous version of this story, so the outlines of the narrative were familiar to me. It takes place in a rather austere part of France in the 16th Century, where a trader/landowner (played by the indominable Mads Mikkelsen) is cheated by a spoiled young baron, and foments a peasant's revolt to right the wrongs done to him. This is totally Mikkelsen's film, with his craggy face and wind swept mane of hair, and his character's quiet rectitude. But some of the smaller roles were well cast, especially favorites of mine, David Kroll and Denis Levant as concerned clerics. The film has little dialogue and much galloping around on horseback. The wide-screen cinematography is strikingly beautiful, taking full advantage of the authenticity of the setting. It has an intimate epic feel, somewhat reminiscent of Dreyers Passion of Joan of Arc; but frankly also felt too long with subtle issues that were confusingly presented.
In contemporary Finland, Teppo (an intense performance by Peter Franzén) is the leader of a neo-Nazi group dedicated to a "white only" nation. When Teppo falls for a blonde waitress with a half-black son, things get interesting. The film is filled with violent tussles; but fundamentally it is a heartfelt, occasionally funny, occasionally moving story of the ability of people to progress past their prejudices. The film is well acted and sporadically affecting; but also disturbing, with its antihero who resists our compassion.
What would you do if you suddenly discovered that an exact replica of yourself existed? That is the dilemma of the college professor played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who sees the image of himself acting in a rented video. What follows is a mystery, with a conclusion that clears up nothing (and in fact just about negates the entire film up to that point.) But director Villeneuve has an eye for turning Toronto's cityscape into an eerie labyrinth. And the script has just enough suspense that one hopes right to the ending that maybe it all can make sense. Alas, not to this viewer.
Vic is a 60-ish Quebecoise woman who apparently (nothing is made clear in this film) is on parole from a life sentence for some undisclosed past crime. She moves into her senile uncle's remote "sugar shack" and is joined by her younger ex-con female lover Flo, who has an equally checkered past. That's the set-up for a strange, atmospheric and violent film which raised more questions than it answered.
Isabelle is 17, from a solid Bourgeois family, attending school. But she also has a secret life as a 300 Euro call girl with an alluring internet site which attracts a series of elderly men. She is played by French gamine of the hour Marine Vacth; and Mlle. Vacth is very, very good and convincing in director François Ozon's sexiest film in ages.
This is a crime thriller, adapted from the first of a series of novels called "Department Q" by Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen. The current story is very reminiscent of "The Silence of the Lambs;" but with a Scandinavian, technocratic edge to it. It stars a favorite actor of mine, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, as police inspector Karl Morck, who with his Arab assistant Assad have been sidelined out of homicide to run a cold case department. Morck is stubborn, and disobeys orders in order to deal with a five-year old cold case suicide that he is certain had been bungled by the police at the time. Of course the outcome of films like this are rarely unexpected. The tale is all in the telling. And this film is one terrific thriller, clever, suspenseful and drenched with atmosphere, which left me longing to see more of Inspector Morck (and read the books.)
This film is an adaptation of Emile Zola's 1867 novel "Thérèse Raquin," which became the original source for later dramas, especially "The Postman Always Rings Twice." The familiar story of an ill-fated couple who murder for love comes to vivid life in this beautifully presented period piece, which re-creates 19th Century Paris perfectly. The film is particularly blessed with some great acting. Elizabeth Olsen plays the eponymous orphan Thérèse with convincing passion, and Jessica Lange is equally fine as her controlling aunt. Tom Felton is also perfect as the sickly, naive, ill-fated husband. But for my money the film belongs to Oscar Isaac as the sexually compelling lover. From this role, and his recent success playing Llewyn Davis in the Coen Brothers film, Isaac is proving to be a major ascending movie star. I had never read Zola's novel; but I suspect that this intense, strikingly mounted, traditionally tragic film is a good adaptation. It certainly is a memorable one which hopefully will find an audience.
This film played at the Palm Springs film festival under the strangely inappropriate title One of a Kind. It's the story of Frédi, a troubled 30-something Frenchman who apparently has inherited from his mother the ability to heal by laying on of hands. But the film becomes an exercise in "healer, heal thyself," as Frédi stumbles through strained relationships and personal disasters mostly by riding to and fro on his motorcycle. The film is shot in a super-artistic style, lots of sun-splashed back-lit scenes, long tracking shots that go nowhere with a raucous English language punk song on the soundtrack. Yes, somewhat pretentious; but also after a while, it just becomes difficult to deal with the unremitting depressives portrayed by the film.
This film played at the Palm Springs film festival as Catch the Dream. It is a rather conventionally presented biopic of the real-life super-horse Tarok and the family that raced him. Tarok was a phenomenon in the early 1970's Denmark, a trotting champion in the era of the ascendance of horse racing as a sport. The film covers the racing career of the horse, who became a beloved national symbol; but it also is about the Laursen family, miserly patriarch and his four sons, who started out as post-WWII farmers, but branched out into horse racing when Danish farming became unprofitable. The film sustains interest through its 2 1/4 hour length; but like many true-life stories the script flounders into the predictable three-act structure in the attempt to provide narrative cohesion. The production is lush, the acting and direction can't be faulted. But the entire film feels old-fashioned and dated.
A young Swedish woman delivers a severely brain damaged son after a difficult childbirth. She falls into a heavy postpartum depression, and joins a therapy group with other depressives. Five of the group decide to "get away from it all" by checking into a nearby hotel cut off from the world. Only they can't escape themselves. That's the set-up for this interesting psychological character study. The characters are vivid and interesting. Their acting out their traumas rang true, even as it became difficult to watch. The film fails if the actors aren't convincing in their roles; and the film doesn't disappoint here. Especially notable was Alicia Vikander as the bereaved young mother. This is an intense drama; but ultimately a satisfying one.
Director Dan Steadman imagines a Technicolor 1960's Los Angeles where everything about sexual politics is Topsy-turvy. Social pressures demand not only same-sex relationships, but opposite racial ones too. Our protagonists are two Caucasian men whose love is forbidden because they are both white. It sounds like a great idea for a satire on gender and race. But the film is (possibly deliberately, but whatever) so bad, that it boggles the mind. Not a single line of dialogue is delivered by the poorly directed actors with an ounce of realism. The entire film is shot with 1960's era television looking process shots (green screen here, but it is extremely obvious.) It has to have been done on purpose, because one automobile driving sequence is shot from the front with the background going side-to-side. Oddly enough, that's the only laugh in the entire film, which intended to be a Doris Day/Rock Hudson era romantic comedy, but failed. I'd like to say that this film was the height of camp; but it was just too inept to be even that. I'm certain that the film makers and actors had good intentions going into this film. But this film was a mess.
This film played at the Palm Springs film festival under the title Gaming Instinct. It takes place at a tony German prep school, where Ada is a precocious student picked on by her classmates. Into the mix comes a new student, Alev, an attractive, impotent sociopath who is drawn to Ada who falls for him. Together they play a cruel and dangerous game of sexual blackmail on one of the teachers. I had trouble believing the plot...the way things develop didn't seem authentic or realistic psychologically. However, despite that, the film had its fascinations. And the two central performances by Michelle Berthel and Jannik Schümann were mesmerizing.
Two contemporary Japanese families discover that their 5-year old boys had been switched at birth by the hospital. That is the jumping off point of the story of how the two sets of parents (and the children) cope with the emotionally wrenching situation. Like most of the Kore-Eda films I have watched, the director has an incredibly deft touch with children. And this film just may be his masterpiece. Every character: the two sets of parents, the children, the grandparents, are beautifully written and acted. The film raises and successfully deals with several issues, mainly the differing effects of genetics and environment, and how parents rear and relate to their children. There simply isn't a single false note in this beautiful and illuminating film.
Brazil, late 1970's. A transgressive cabaret troupe, composed of men, women, drag queens and everything in between performs its fabulous songs, poems and skits (including one paean to bare bottoms done in the nude) before their show is banned. But this is also the story of a gay soldier, abused by his comrades, who hooks up with one of the entertainers. The guys are attractive, the sex steamy, the costumes and cinematography quite vivid. In some ways this film is reminiscent of another Brazilian drag movie, the biopic Madame Sata. But the current film appealed to me more, with characters and their plights that I found quite relatable.
This film is a total departure for a Bruce LaBruce film. 18-year old Lake (the preternaturally cute French Canadian actor Pier-Gabriel Lajoie) discovers that he has a fetish for elderly men while giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a drowning senior citizen in his job as a lifeguard. He takes a job in an assisted living facility where he is, to say the least, happy as a clam. At the facility, he meets a lively octogenarian "queen" (Walter Border), and a sweet affair ensues.
In its way, this film is just as shocking and iconoclastic as previous films by the film maker. However, here he demonstrates a deft touch for romance and PG rated action. Somehow this unlikely relationship feels realistic, and a lot of the credit goes to the two actors who are totally charming and real. Think of a gay version of Harold & Maud with sex, and you come close to what this film is about. I've never really gotten into one of LaBruce's transgressive films before; but this is one movie that made *me* feel good.
A group of six Israelis, 5 women and one man, win the bid to represent Israel in the Eurovision song contest. That ensues is a "Glee" like, feel-good comedy. Of course since this is an Eytan Fox film, one of the women is a lesbian and the guy is gay (although dating a closeted hunk.) However, even though this is an audience pleaser, I was disappointed. The film didn't have the bite of previous Fox films...nor did I find it very amusing or the production very interesting. The songs fell flat, and the relationship stories were mostly familiar cliches.
After the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia in 1968, a committed student named Jan Palach immolated himself in full public view in Prague's Wencelas Square, martyring himself in the cause of freedom. This lengthy film is adapted from an HBO Central European mini-series directed by Agnieszka Holland. It centers on Palach's family and their attempts to use the legal system to counter the State's slander of his deed. This is a true story which needs to be remembered; and this film does a fine job of showing how the authorities manipulated the justice system and coerced people into acting disreputably by finding and using their weaknesses.
I had never heard of Palach before; but I was mesmerized by the repercussions of his act. This legal thriller managed to maintain its suspense and fascinating story over the entire 3 1/2 plus hours, without intermission. This wasn't a sumptuous production, rather an intimate people story of broad scope. If anything, I wish it had been even longer and painted the story with a broader brush.
This is the story of two businessmen, an Israeli and a Palestinian who form a company together to build solar arrays to provide power to the people of Palestine. They face enormous obstacles on both sides; but these are overcome. Of course this is a modern day fable. No such rapprochement is possible within the framework of today's politics. But the film imagines a way that it could come about. It's a nice idea. And this American audience was obviously enthusiastic and moved by the notion that peace and mutual prosperity in that troubled region could be accomplished.
This is a war film of epic proportions, a two-part, 5 hour saga which follows five German friends through World War II from 1941 to the culmination of the war in 1945. Originally done as a mini-series for German television, the production is every bit as impressive as HBO's Band of Brothers, except centering on the Eastern front from the German point of view. It also has parallels to Tolstoy's "War and Peace;" again with the point of view shifted to the losing side.
The film is structured as a series of episodes featuring each of its five protagonists as they variously progress through the war. The scope is enormous, running the gamut from Wehrmacht soldiers fighting pitched battles in the rush to Moscow and the ensuing stalemate and retreat; the Holocaust from the point of view of the Jewish protagonist who becomes a resistance fighter in Poland; the front-line army hospitals from the point of view of a naive nurse; and the Nazi intrigues back in Berlin. The editing schema is superb: every story, every sequence perfectly integrated into the whole (although much of the drama depends on some unlikely bringing together of the characters despite the vastness of the areas of conflict.) But the characters and dialogue are so well written that the plot manipulations matter little. True, at the end of the first half, I had reservations about the formulaic nature of the script. But by the end of Part 2, when all of the plot threads came together, the cumulative effect was unforgettable.
Special note should go to the actors, especially Volker Bruch and Tom Schilling, who play two disparate brothers in the same platoon whose characters progress the most, both for better and worse throughout the film. And there's impressive work by Ludwig Trepte, in the role of the Jewish member of the group.
This mini-series is proof that Germany is now taking a hard and honest look at its actions in World War II. I've been reminded that we've seen all this before in films and on TV. True, WWII is old news and the stories have been told and re-told so many times that perhaps it is time to put it all to bed. Yet, there still seems to be an endless reservoir of material that can be recycled in a fresh and interesting way. For my money, this film with its extraordinary production value and huge scope represents an unqualified success.
A daring and profane Israeli officer nicknamed Bambi, during one of the early wars against the neighboring countries returns from battle and sells his "place in heaven" to the religious cook in return for a month of scrambled eggs. That is the jump-off point of a forty-year saga of Israel's secular and religious history through the tale of the rise and fall of this officer and his relationship with his Yemenite wife, and especially his son who grows up in revolt against everything his father stands for.
This is a powerful film which presents its father/son story with a kind of Old Testament savagery, something of Isaac and Jacob, or David and Absalom. Except this is in the realistic milieu of contemporary Israel. Director Yossi Madmon has an incredible eye for interesting compositions and a sure hand with his actors. He deftly combines the intimate family story within the sweep of real historical events; and makes the innate religious contradictions within Israeli society come alive as few films ever have. I was impressed by this film, by its scope and its emotional wallop.
The setting is Sicily, where rival gangs are warring. We never really get a feeling for why; but the film opens when one side is ambushed by another. In the melee, the ambushers are beaten off and Salvo, Mafia hit-man, runs off to avenge the attack. The film becomes a slow, artfully presented game of cat-and-mouse, with the implacable Salvo becoming side-tracked by his unexpected feeling towards a blind woman, sister to the enemy. The film is mostly shot in dark, dingy places with an atmosphere of tension and dread. Saleh Bakri plays Salvo, and he is an actor of rare presence, sort of an Italian Gary Cooper, or the Alain Delon of Le Samouraï. The pacing of the film was a little slow for me; but this is artful cinema of a high order.
A young, misunderstood culinary genius (played by the skilled French comedian Michaël Youn) can't keep a job until he comes to the attention of an aging Michelin 3-star chef played by Jean Reno. What ensues is a typical French comedy that is only sporadically funny...but which is a foodie's delight.
In 1977 a Bosnian Muslim girl gets pregnant by a Serbian Orthodox boy, which shamed her violent father and caused her to run away to the care of her sympathetic aunt, Halima. That's the set-up for this powerful drama which spans decades of war and its aftermath; and gradually discloses through flashbacks a heart rending tragedy. The acting and direction were superb. This is the stuff of a modern day Greek tragedy on the order of Oedipus Rex. I was moved by its honesty and humanity.
This film played at the Palm Springs film festival under the name "The Mercury Factor." However, whatever they choose to call it, the film can't escape its awfulness. This is a turgid thriller about a Hong Kong cabal into the food adulteration game. Star and director Luca Barbareschi may have had his heart in the right place to blow the whistle on the dangers to the public from the international food trade. But this film is a confusing mess complete with crooked cops, an unconvincing romance, and red herrings galore. Artfully shot sex scenes and montages played to a sappy song score can't rescue a script where the characters act so arbitrarily and eye-rollingly counter to their nature. The film does look great, very big screen, colorful noir with an emphasis on the humungous, soulless buildings of modern Hong Kong. But I prefer my thrillers to make a lick of sense.
This is an English language remake of the 2003 French Canadian film Seducing Dr. Lewis, about a small town needing to acquire a doctor and willing to go to any length to persuade one to stay. In this case the young prospective doctor is played by Taylor Kitsch (whose career definitely needs a boost), and the town mayor by the wonderful Brendon Gleeson. The current film is funny and heartfelt. But my enjoyment was tempered a bit by the realization that I had seen all this before. I'm never quite sure why an English remake of a foreign language film is necessary, especially one that was a one-note, small town, shaggy-dog story to begin with. But Don McKellar's deft direction and the actors here were an improvement over the original.
In 1896 there was a huge gold rush to the Canadian far north. This film tells the story of an ill-fated group of Germans who set out in a horse driven wagon train of sorts to reach the Klondike by land from the south, a task so difficult that they weren't prepared for the rigors of the trek. Nina Hoss is the only familiar actor here, playing an immigrant housemaid who is desperate to better her station. The scenery in this far-north Western is strikingly beautiful and a nice change from the familiar. The narrative is involving enough, although the psychology of some of the characters didn't always ring true. I'd recommend this film for anybody who might enjoy a different variation on the American Western mythos.
Emmanuel Mouret has established himself as a fine comic auteur acting and directing such films as The Art of Love. But like Woody Allen, apparently this comic actor has aspirations to make "serious" films. However, this turgid romantic melodrama about an ill-fated love is simply terrible on all levels: the script is ridiculously manipulative, the actors are wooden and lack chemistry, the pacing is excruciatingly slow. Mouret should stick to comedy.
In 1941 all the able bodied men in one area of Turkey were conscripted to work in the coal mines. The film opens with a large-scale B&W re-creation of the horrendous scene of chained men going to work underground. But that is prologue. As the screen turns to color, we're introduced to two young men in their early 20's. Both are aspiring impoverished poets; and both have tuberculosis. The film covers two years of these real-life men...their mutual love for an unobtainable girl from a rich family, their passion for life, their obscure output of poems. The cinematography and production is gorgeous. The lead actor, Kivanç Tatlitug has charisma to burn. The film was slow to establish its characters and plot; but by the end I found myself enormously moved by the tragic plight of these obscure poets.