The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong

Review written By Andrés Rosende

I’ve always been a fan of The Hunger Games. In this age of superhero franchises and young adult fantasy movies, Katniss Everdeen stands out as a feminist heroine who challenges traditional narratives about women: she carries a bow, kills and survives, is not emotionally available and prefers to act instead of speaking. She hunts while her male counterpart bakes, speaks about feelings, and encourages her to open up and share. And while her biggest competitor in the franchise war, Bella Swan from Twilight is a clumsy, helpless girl willing to sacrifice everything – her family, her friends and her life – to be with her vampire love, Katniss sacrifices herself to save her sister and eventually becomes the leader of the rebellion against the totalitarianism of the Capitol. At the end of Twilight, Bella is pregnant, married and refuses to go to college, opting to have a baby that might kill her. The message is clear: abstinence leads to marriage and motherhood to the apotheosis of a woman’s life. Katniss, on the other hand, is a refreshing girl. She is strong, smart; doesn’t follow the rules and proves she doesn’t need Prince Charming to protect her. In short, Katniss is a good role model for teenagers.

All that said, Mockingjay Part 1, one of the most anticipated films of the year, is not a good movie. It’s actually a clear example of commercial interests being put ahead of storytelling. Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common in Hollywood these days. And it’s too bad because it could have been a great finale for a very entertaining and interesting franchise.

Dividing the final book into two movies makes no narrative sense but follows what the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas did (not to mention what Peter Jackson did with The Hobbit). And it is a strategy that works in the box office. Mockingjay Part 1 made more than $121 million on its first weekend and it’s getting close to $600 million worldwide. The problem with the film is that it feels like a huge set-up, full of exposition, for something we have to wait a year to see. To put it plainly: nothing happens in this film.

Lets imagine for a second that you are reading Little Red Riding Hood to a kid but instead of telling the full story you stop when Little Red Riding Hood meets the Wolf. Still you have to tell the story in the same amount of time. What would happen? Well, you would maybe describe a day in Little Red’s life: school, friends, games, homework, etc. We would go into depth about her relationship with her mum and her grandmother. We would make clear how far her grandmother’s house is from theirs; maybe she will study a big map of the forest…Then, her journey begins: she would have to stop to smell the flowers, listen to the birds and talk to the neighbors. She would probably have to take a couple of detours to meet some colorful creatures until she would finally encounter the Wolf. And now that the story starts to get exciting, we tell the kid to go to bed and that tomorrow we’ll finish the story, promising the ending is amazing. That’s exactly how I felt watching Mockingjay Part 1.

The film starts a few days after the close of Catching Fire with a tormented Katniss Everdeen living in an underground bunker, which is all that’s left from District 13, the military base of the rebellion against the Capitol dictatorship. Its leaders want to use her popularity to create a propaganda campaign. However, Katniss only wants to get back Peeta Mellark, her sidekick/love-interest. She agrees to become the “Mockingjay,” the symbol of hope and resistance for the propaganda campaign, but she is a terrible actress and the ads have no soul…until she sees with her own eyes the cruelty of the Capitol. And then, for a second, we get to see what Katniss will become in the final chapter of the saga. Unfortunately, this and a few other interesting moments are not reason enough for this film to exist. The movie becomes a drag and should have been the first act, the first 30 minutes, of a full film.

Francis Lawrence has a good feel for portraying the post apocalyptical world of Hunger Games but there is nothing a director can do without a screenplay. The most interesting – I should probably say the only interesting – thing about Mockingjay Part 1 is its political satire in the era of mass media manipulation that resonates so well in our present world. But it’s the amazing performers that are the main reason the film is watchable. Jennifer Lawrence is one of those people I can watch breathe and find interesting, but she delivers one of her weakest performances. For most of the movie she just stares in anger and despair. Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci Natalie Dormer, Julianne Moore and the unique Philip Seymour Hoffman (cinema is really going to miss you) raise the film from mediocrity, although it has the feel of a director who was given a bunch of Ferraris and just a suburban street with a lot of speed bumps to drive in.

Mockingjay Part 1 ends with a great plot twist (meeting the Wolf) and promises us an epic conclusion full of action and fireworks where, maybe, Katniss will get a full character arc and become the feminist leader of this revolution. We’ll know in 12 months.

Andrés Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

The Boxtrolls, directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, screenplay by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava

Review written by Mike Fishman

Set in an imaginary early 19th Century England, this feature animation from Laika Studios (Coraline, ParaNorman) is another step forward for stop-motion animation, a painstaking process in which it can take filmmakers a week of work to create four seconds of footage. For The Boxtrolls, the creative team at Laika incorporated 3D printing to create literally millions of character’s faces, many of which were only used once. The payoff is apparent from the first frame, with character’s faces more expressive than we’ve seen before, particularly the eyes, generally the weakest aspect of animated characters. As is often the case with animation it’s the little touches and degrees of improvement that make all the difference. And particularly in stop-motion it’s the details that enthrall: tiny buttons on sleeves, shoes with laces, the character’s pushed and pulled faces. This being England in the 19th Century, one of the running gags is characters sporting horribly crooked teeth, bared so often and with such relish they practically earn their own credit, adding not just dark humor but a sense of realism, albeit exaggerated.

The film is a visual delight and several big scenes are truly exhilarating, especially a set-piece that takes us deep beneath the city streets to the boxtroll’s lair. The story (based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters!) concerns an infant boy who is saved from danger by boxtrolls, grayish creatures who live underground and use discarded boxes to hide their bodies and from which they get their names: Shoes, Fish, Eggs, etc. Archibald Snatcher, an evil exterminator voiced with ghoulish flare by Ben Kingsley, strikes a deal with the city to destroy the boxtrolls in exchange for membership into the mayor’s cheese-obsessed council, even though Snatcher is allergic to cheese. His denial of the allergy, even when his face puffs up horribly, is one of several ironic touches running through this witty film; he is determined to become part of the upper class even if it kills him. A wicked wit is apparent as well in the absurd scenes of Snatcher dressed as a female chanteuse and performing a ditty for the public demonizing the boxtrolls. Yes, that’s right, a cross-dressing performance voiced by Sir Ben.

Of course, there’s a girl (Elle Fanning) who helps save the boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright); it is after all the very rare animated film that doesn’t feel the need to include or base their story upon a young romance. Contemporary classics Brave and Frozen are certainly changing that and refreshingly, the female character in The Boxtrolls is a feisty fiercely independent girl who is more curious than frightened of the creatures and the one doing the saving. Upon arriving in their lair and finding them surprisingly timid she wonders aloud where the storied bones of dead children are, disappointedly exclaiming, “I was promised rivers of blood and bones. Lots of bones.” More humor comes in the form of Snatcher’s henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade), dressed and speaking as if they were waiting for Godot, constantly questioning whether they are good or evil and riffing hilariously during the closing credits about the possibility of being controlled by some unseen forces or hands (!) as the filmmakers use time-lapse photography to reveal a puppeteer manipulating the characters. It’s a wonderfully self-referential, tongue-in-cheek scene, and part of what makes The Boxtrolls so smart.

The Boxtrolls will be available for streaming and on DVD in January 2015.
Visit the official website: http://www.laika.com/

Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Review written by Andrés Rosende.

There are not many big Hollywood directors whose work I’m always impatient and excited to see. Christopher Nolan is one of those directors. The only thing I knew about Interstellar before walking into an impressive IMAX theater was that Steven Spielberg – Zeus in that Olympus of directors I’ve worshipped since I was a kid – had worked on it for a while, which only made the film more appealing to me.

When I came out, three hours later, I did it with a big smile on my face, feeling Interstellar was not only a stunning film of epic proportions but also an art piece that dares to ask big important questions about life, survival, love and time.

When I got home, I decided to read what people were saying about the film and, to my surprise, the reviews were not only mixed but most of the time talked about a different film. That reminded me of when I was in film school and a writer would present an idea for a story in class. The first reaction was not to understand what that writer wanted to do and help him achieve that but to take his idea to create a completely different film with it. “Yeah, I guess that is an interesting idea but I’m making a horror film here and not a political drama.” I feel with Interstellar critics have done the same thing. Some of them were expecting a very cerebral, metaphysical movie, closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Others said it was too cold and were expecting a Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Too much scientific talk; too much Dylan Thomas; too ambitious, etc. Well, Interstellar is neither Kubrick nor Spielberg but that doesn’t mean it is not deep or emotional.

In a distant future, Earth is dying. Men were too greedy and exhausted its resources. There is no place for technology or science, only farming. Dust storms cover everything and the last crops of corn are dying. Starvation or suffocation will be the only destiny of the human race unless they find another inhabitable planet where they can start over. But time is of the essence. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey proving 2013 was just the beginning of a new career), a NASA pilot and an engineer working as a farmer, will lead the expedition that can save the human race. By accepting this mission he has to leave his children behind, a decision that will torment him forever. And because, following Einstein’s theories, time is relative and an hour in a distant planet could be 23 years on Earth, Cooper’s children’s lives will slip through his fingers like water. In one of the best scenes in the film, Cooper sits in front of a screen to listen to the messages his son has left for over 20 years. In that touching moment, a superb McConaughey is able to portray regret, loss, happiness, despair and guilt, but also hope.

Time is something that Nolan worries about and this is not the first time he’s explored its compression and dilation (2010′s Inception). I don’t need to understand the scientific talk and the Relativity Theory to understand that time is relative. Nor does anyone else. Don’t the hands of your watch move very slow the week before a first date? Don’t you count the minutes to get out of a boring class? On the other hand, haven’t you come back home after a year abroad to notice your parents are older or your niece is suddenly talking and wonder where were you? Haven’t you looked back to see that 5 years or 10 years just went by? That our lives will be over in the blink of an eye? Like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says, we are prisoners of time. At least, here on Earth.

The other idea that seems to throw people off is that love is a big part of the scientific solution to a very complex equation that could eventually save us. At the same time, when we talk about leaving a better planet to our children or when we talk about the survival of the species, what are we talking about if not the people we love? I personally could care less about some genetic material that could create human life on another planet. I care about my family and my friends, the people I love. And it’s Cooper’s love for his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain) that brings us to the most amazing and visually striking scene in the film: a three-dimensional representation of the fourth dimension, time, in which Cooper can access a specific location simultaneously at all possible times. This is how he is able to travel in time to deliver a message to his daughter.

Besides its thematic ambition, Interstellar is also a film of a scale we rarely see anymore. The beautiful imagery that Nolan creates (please go see it in IMAX 70 mm. if you can) and its relationship with sound is one of the most cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. On top of that, the film has powerful performances; analogue and hipper realistic visual effects; amazing robots… and Hans Zimmer’s best score since The Lion King and Gladiator.

In the final twist of Interstellar we learn that those “beings” that helped humans understand how to escape Earth were none other than the humans of the future. As if Nolan was a humanist from the Renaissance believing in Protagoras’s statement of “men are the measure of all things,” he seems to believe that if we ask the big questions, if we explore and wonder, we can accomplish anything. And that is a beautiful way of seeing the world.

“Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rage at close of day/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (Dylan Thomas)

Andrés Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

The Wound and The Gift, directed by Linda Hoaglund

Last weekend saw the 5th annual DOC NYC film festival in Manhattan fill the IFC Center, Chelsea Bow Tie Cinemas and the SVA Theater with more than 130 films and events. Among the unusual highlights was Linda Hoaglund’s beautifully-crafted The Wound and The Gift. Focusing on a handful of sanctuaries for animals that have been abused, neglected, are in danger of being put down or facing extinction, this 80-minute documentary makes a subtle case for animals giving back to their caregivers as much as they receive. Stunningly lensed by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, the film provides brief portraits of several natural reserves dedicated to animals ranging from wolfdogs (wolves bred with dogs) to circus animals referred to as “surplus” by their owners to white cranes in Japan that stand five feet tall and were facing extinction before being saved by villagers, themselves struggling for their existence. Ending with the cranes in Japan was a nice touch by Hoaglund as throughout the film she weaves an animated Japanese fairy tale narrated by Vanessa Redgrave about a wounded crane being saved by a poor peasant and attempting to give back to the peasant, hence the film’s title.

Although the fable and its accompanying vivid animation from illustrator Victo Ngai (http://victo-ngai.com/) adds an enjoyable element of fantasy and folklore, it’s the moments between the animals and the humans in the very real world that are most memorable and often powerful, though to Hoaglund’s credit she never hits the viewer over the head with pronouncements. But she certainly leads them to inevitable conclusions, surely including the realization that any individual who would breed dogs with wolves in a selfish attempt to create a “wild” domestic pet (that will become unmanageable once it reaches maturity) is not only foolish but harmful to the balance between humans and animals. What happens to these innocent creatures when they show their natural inclination for independence? They are generally shot, disposed of like some misguided minor experiment. Such manipulation of animals is in direct contrast to the trust and reciprocal nature of the relationship that can exist between humans and animals, whether it’s dogs or cats in the comfort of our homes or an adult tiger or lion saved from an abusive circus owner.

Perhaps the most arresting segment in the film focuses on a ranch for old race horses where prison inmates with an aptitude for it are given the opportunity to learn about caring for the horses, potentially gaining a skill they can use to find employment upon release. More to the point, working with the horses allows them to regain a sense of purpose and a place in the world outside the prison walls. Just as the inmates may otherwise be treated as expendable, the animals have a place on this planet and an awareness of themselves, though their communication comes in a language people must work to comprehend. Ultimately, The Wound and The Gift serves as a reminder that we are not the only inhabitants of this planet but as the dominant species we owe something to the other occupants, if only in hopes of living on a more compassionate plane of existence.

Visit the film’s website and watch the trailer: http://www.thewoundandthegift.com/

Learn about DOC NYC: http://www.docnyc.net/

Review written by Mike Fishman

Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University, has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival and the Columbia University Film Program, and developed the website, IndependentFilmNow.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

10,000 KM, directed by Carlos Marqués-Marcet, written by Carlos Marqués-Marcet and Clara Roquet

The AFI Film Festival always brings a breeze of fresh air to the movie landscape in Los Angeles. Among the many outstanding films at the festival, I loved Carlos Marqués-Marcet’s opera prima 10,000 KM (Long Distance). With a special award for its acting duo at SXSW and swiping the top prizes at the Malaga Film Festival in Spain, this moving film will be one of the most remembered indies of 2014 and a strong candidate for the Spanish Academy Awards.

10,000 KM is not another love story. It is a love story for the age of globalization and social media dependence. Alex and Sergio live happy in Barcelona. He is a teacher; she is an artist. They are in love and planning to have a baby. Life is simple. Life is good. Until she receives an unexpected artistic residence in Los Angeles. Can their relationship survive a year 10,000 km apart?

Carlos Marqués-Marcet takes us on this emotional journey with a pulse we rarely see in first-time directors. And that is clear from the first frame of the film to the last. The movie opens with a 20-minute long take –a continuous shot that captures the action without cutting- and usually the stamp a director wants to be remembered by. From the famous opening of Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil to the ones in Robert Altman’s The Player, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and Alfoso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Gravity, long takes are shots meant for critics to discuss and point out. But why are long takes so interesting? Well, usually because of its technical complexity and beautiful choreography. But sometimes, something else lies underneath these virtuoso shots.

Let’s take, for example, one of my all time favorites: Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In it Ray Liotta introduces Lorraine Bracco to his world at the Copacabana. The reason I love that shot so much is because of how well it works in the context of that particular story. Henry (Liotta) seduces Karen (Bracco) by showing off his connections, his wealth and his power through a beautifully designed choreography that takes us from outside of the club to a front table inside, going through the back entrance and labyrinth kitchen. At the same time Scorsese seduces his audience with an “oh my God, look how good I am at this” kind of shot. It’s the perfect symbiosis of form and content.

In 10,000 KM, Marqués-Marcet does something similar. The happy, solid couple is introduced to us with a solid one shot that takes us from them making love in bed, to brushing their teeth, to eating breakfast. As if we were watching a play, the complicity between the incredible performers Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer, unfolds organically and in real time in front of our eyes. Again, form and content together.

After that, the film will take a u-turn. The rest of the scenes will be very fragmented, like Alex and Sergio’s relationship. Through text messages, e-mails, Facebook updates, Google Maps and, especially through Skype calls, we follow the conversations of the couple as distance, like water penetrating rock, slowly erodes their relationship. And when we get to the final (and strongest) shot of the film, we are led to turn our eyes inward, to our own experiences to ask ourselves about the decisions we’ve made in our relationships, because distance is not only a spatial measurement.

Besides the mentioned aesthetic qualities of the film, its greatest asset is the touching performance by both of its protagonist. What could have been a claustrophobic and even boring film becomes a beautiful, intense and bittersweet portrait of love in the digital era. Produced by Lastor Media and LA-based LA Panda Productions, 10,000 KM will hit the theaters January from Broad Green Pictures.

View the trailer for 10,000 KM here: https://vimeo.com/88695931

Review written by Andres Rosende

Andres Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Men, Women and Children, directed by Jason Reitman, written by Jason Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson

Once upon a time, people wrote letters to each other and didn’t feel the need to share photos of their breakfast with the world. Cell phones and the internet changed that and now it’s normal (if we can call it that) to see a couple sitting across from each other in a restaurant, heads bowed down and fingers tapping away, occasionally nodding to acknowledge the person allegedly with them. Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children (based on the novel by Chad Kultgen) attempts to explore how our technology-driven reality affects our relationships. Of course, as soon as a filmmaker focuses on the technology of the day he risks creating a film that is dated upon release. And indeed, we’ve all been dealing with screen pop-ups for so long that when they’re portrayed populating a porn-watching character’s virus-ridden computer we chuckle in recognition but it already seems almost quaint. What makes Men, Women and Children interesting despite the familiarity of its particulars is the way Reitman skillfully weaves several separate storylines that span the generation gap from high school to middle-aged and finds ways to portray solitary internet activities, such as the use of text balloons for texting.

From a stage mom (an excellent Judy Greer) crossing the line into exploitation if not soft-core porn via a website designed to propel her daughter into stardom to an overly-anxious parent (Jennifer Garner) trying to control her daughter’s online life with near tragic results to a frustrated couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) seeking sex outside their stalled marriage, the film does an effective job of exploring how we constantly create and re-create our internet identities and how that affects our daily lives. The chief irony of today’s over-connected world is that despite being able to share anything in an instant, communication is so brief and fleeting it’s easy for people to delude themselves into thinking they are connecting when it’s mostly just ripples on the surface. Facebook especially, seems adept at allowing people to convince themselves that the mundane is dramatic when truly, the mundane is still just the mundane. Of course, solid information is there for the taking and Facebook can be seen as an instantaneous version of yesteryear’s pen-pals. The question is, what information do we put out there and what do with the varying levels of power that can engender? And the more sophisticated the tools the more cruelly they can be wielded, such as in a scene involving three high school girls, two of them texting brutally about the third in front of her oblivious face.

Although weighed down by an unnecessary voiceover narration (a prim Emma Thompson) and an air of predictability, Reitman’s sixth feature film refreshingly leaves room for ambiguity in the various storylines, not tying everything up too neatly. When the meddling of Garner’s well-meaning but overzealous mother leads to the near-suicide of her daughter’s emotionally-tortured boyfriend (an impressive Ansel Elgort), her face registers both the realization of her misdirection and her helplessness in a world in which actual internet predators do exist. That the scene avoids becoming maudlin is a testament to Reitman’s touch at controlling both the camera and Garner’s often over-the-top earnestness. Similarly, when DeWitt’s guilt-ridden wife starts to confess her hotel room dalliances to Sandler’s equally guilty husband, his reaction that it’s better if they “don’t go there,” just move on and have breakfast in peace, avoids the expected confrontation to touch on the perfunctory communication that can occur between two close individuals. This little plot swerve may stretch believability but is at least thought-provoking if not satisfying. That they both used the noisy internet to engage in wild flings yet now long for a quiet breakfast with each other gives hope that they can, in fact, move on and save their marriage. Sometimes the best communication between two connected people is an agreeable silence.

Review by Mike Fishman

Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Magic in the Moonlight, written and directed by Woody Allen

Seeing a new Woody Allen film in the theater has been a yearly ritual for so long it’s natural to go in with high expectations and setting aside the misgivings left over from the occasional misses among the hits. Magic in the Moonlight, unfortunately, now joins Mr. Allen’s small collection of misses. Thankfully in this, his 45th feature-length film as director, we are spared the Woody Allen surrogates of recent years and we get Emma Stone being mostly Emma Stone (though at times her facial expressions and enunciation can feel a bit too contemporary for the 1928-set film) and Colin Firth inhabiting the British upper crust that fits him like a glove in a story about Stanley (Firth), a celebrated magician traveling to the south of France to debunk Sophie (Stone), a young psychic allegedly attempting to bilk a wealthy naïve widow longing to connect with her dead husband.

The film opens on a whimsical note with Mr. Firth’s magician in Asian make-up complete with Fu-Manchu mustache on stage in Berlin making an elephant disappear and performing other staged tricks for a rapt audience. Afterwards he is approached by an old friend (Simon McBurney) who tells him of Sophie, whose talents as a medium are apparently impressively convincing. Off to France they go, the dyspeptic Stanley nearly rubbing his hands together in glee in anticipation of un-masking the fraud. The French countryside provides stunning scenery and, as usual with Mr. Allen, the film’s pacing, framing, editing and camera work seem effortless. The sets and props are seductive and the use of period music is mostly entrancing although the choice of a snippet of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for a heavy scene feels, well, heavy-handed.

In fact, much of the film is heavy-handed and filled with dialogue that is more often than not expository. Characters are constantly telling each other what they think and feel, allowing for virtually no subtext or subtlety. Despite a theme concerned with, ultimately, the existence of God, the film never delves beneath its glossy surface. Mr. Allen has often mined the after-life for humor, poking fun at life’s meaning in Love and Death (1975) and presenting a memorably blunt assessment of how Jesus would react to contemporary society in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). But in Magic in the Moonlight there is no winking at the camera and few real laughs. And the about-face Firth’s character makes, falling in love with Stone’s con artist after dismissing any kind of affection for her feels too convenient, leading, disappointingly though not unexpectedly, to the moment when they kiss, which comes off as forced and only highlights the glaring age difference between the two actors (28 years).

In the end, Magic in the Moonlight feels rushed and, as with the few other of Mr. Allen’s failed comedies (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001, and Whatever Works, 2009, come to mind), a film that is enjoyable to a degree as a work of entertainment but disappointing in its weightlessness given the talent, themes and resources involved. Such disappointment can morph into irritation, given the many classics Mr. Allen has produced over the years. We enter into this particular audience-filmmaker relationship knowing that this is the writer/director who gave us Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days and, just last year, the startling Blue Jasmine. So take what pleasure you can from the visuals and hang on to the hope that Mr. Allen, an amateur magician in his youth, will pull a true magic trick from his sleeve next time.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater

In a year with few truly memorable films thus far (Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida being one of the memorable ones and Oscar season still to come), the predictable summer gave us a bit of fresh air with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Shot over a period of twelve years with the same actors, including frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke, Boyhood allows us to witness the passage of time, focusing on Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, Fast Food Nation) who grows from 6 to 18 during the course of the film. Though by no means a documentary, framed as it is by a story in which Mason and his sister Samanatha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter) spend generally carefree weekends with their father (an outstanding Hawke) and home life with often-frustrated mother Patricia Arquette after the parents divorce, the film does allow us to see the actors age, creating a (mostly fascinating) opportunity to observe the fleeting nature of time and the “now.”

Part of what makes Boyhood work so well is the equal focus on small moments (bowling, camping, playing in a park) and milestones (first day at a new school, high school graduation, leaving home for college). In fact, it’s the little moments that are most convincing, moments that are casual on the surface yet mine frank emotion, such as the “talk about sex” that Dad gives Samantha over French fries in a public eatery, Lorelei Linklater truly shining as an embarrassed teen not wanting to hear about condoms from her father. Her nearly horrified laughter is not only infectious, it feels real and all the more infectious because of how real it feels. It hardly seems like acting.

The big moments, unfortunately, don’t fare quite as well, occasionally feeling forced such as when Arquette’s mother breaks down as Mason, Jr. packs to leave for college. Arquette seems distant throughout the film and her sobbing in this farewell scene is not entirely convincing. Perhaps it’s the just the struggle for art to replicate life showing its strain but throughout the film a certain level of empathy that should be present feels elusive. Part of the problem is that except for Mason, Samantha and Mason, Jr., most of the characters come across as people you wouldn’t really want to spend a whole lot of time with. And near the two-thirds mark, a certain fatigue and tediousness starts to threaten, just like in real life when we find ourselves spending too much time with a relative or friend who we love, certainly, but who have the distinct ability to drive us up a wall. Truly, familiarity can breed contempt, in life and in the movies, and one of the points one may take away from Boyhood is we are none of us perfect nor always a pleasure to be around, but you only have one family. The problem is, at a running time of 165 minutes, the film, like those friends and relatives, can tax our patience.

Yet it all pays off beautifully as the film ends on a wonderfully understated moment with Mason, Jr. in the rocky outdoors, away from home at college and stoned, tentatively connecting with a sweet girl he’s just met. The tone is of uncertainty mixed with hopefulness, a tone that informs the entire movie and, for many of us, our daily lives. Boyhood taps into that, that sadness and happiness, that regret and hopefulness, and reflects it back to us. Through it all, we get the evolving picture of Mason, Jr, a budding artist; through the early teenage years when he seems a bit more thoughtful than everyone around him to the pimpled high school days of purple fingernail polish (applied by his then-girlfriend/eventual first heartbreak) and, then, the beginning of the journey of finding himself.


Richard Linklater and the cast of Boyhood at Sundance, 2014

To whatever degree one can relate to the various characters, be it the divorced father, the single working mother, the children of divorce, Linklater has created a unique film that will lead thoughtful viewers to muse on the relationships in their own lives, the passage of time, and, ultimately, mortality – their own and that of those close to them. This is a film that should resonate for many people with moments in their own lives, working, as great films can, like a poem. A poem we once loved but haven’t read or spoken or thought about for years and that now lies buried in our consciousness. One of the few gifts of merciless time is that we can return to that poem, if we choose, and the feelings it once evoked, and for one brief moment all the years may drift away like fallen leaves. That a film that works on such a level was released in the middle of summer is a gift, one that should be relished in the theater while it still can. At home, on TV, with the cell phone nearby and thoughts of ice cream in the freezer waiting to be consumed, Boyhood will feel a lot more like television than poetry. Good television, certainly, but not poetry.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau

Based on the unsubtle trailer, I wasn’t expecting much when I took in Jon Favreau’s latest work as director, here also serving as writer and star, mostly due to the inevitable clichés I would have to digest along with the promised food porn. And it didn’t disappoint in this regard, Favreau’s schlubby chef, Carl, being ridiculously talented and his love interests played by the exuberant Sofia Vergara and the almost absurdly sensual Scarlett Johansson. And then there was Dustin Hoffman, spewing spittle all over the kitchen as his demanding boss. As expected, the story follows Carl who, after his kitchen creativity is stymied, walks out on the job and starts selling food from a truck on a road trip that gains fame on Twitter for his perfect Cuban sandwiches thanks to the internet savvy of his young son, Percy (an excellent Emjay Anthony).

If a lot of this sounds predictable, it is. But at a certain point the food took over, as it must in a satisfying food film, as well as the more interesting sub-plot of the relationship between the gruff, tough-love Carl and the yearning Percy, culminating in a surprisingly moving montage of one-second video clips from their road trip edited together by Percy into a short movie. Damn if that montage wasn’t moving and heartfelt and, quite literally, the stuff great film moments are made of. In fact, that little montage took me back to a month earlier when I had re-visited Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights (1931). With all due respect to Mr. Favreau, I am not comparing the director of Elf and Iron Man to the director of The Gold Rush and Modern Times. But the sweet montage that Favreau caps his film with taps into the same reservoir of feeling, the same swelling in one’s heart that should and must occur during the final scene in City Lights, when the formerly blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) suddenly realizes that it was the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) who was her benefactor only after she feels his hands and touches his face.

He looks at her shyly and filled with love. “Now you can see?” She gazes back at him in wonder and with love, too, that starts to grow. “Yes, now I can see.” Seeing, of course, not only physically but also the truth, realizing how wrong she was to judge him by his physical appearance. That City Lights fades out immediately makes the scene even more potent. What will happen to these two? There could have been a whole other film: Cut to one year later, the Tramp is working alongside his love in their flower shop, the Tramp mucking things up but everything coming out all right in the end.

With that one little flourish, Favreau takes us from light fare into a tender and sweet place, utilizing the visual as much as the aural. Of course, silent film works on a different level than conventional cinema and the great ones, including most of Chaplin’s, are filled with memorable moments, not just capped with them. But viewers wary of Chef’s premise may find themselves surprisingly satisfied with this light meal.

And if you haven’t seen City Lights (available from the public library and out in a new Blu-ray from Criterion), definitely give that a shot. For a silent film, it has an awful lot to say.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Katja Loher’s “Bang Bang!”


Whimsically psychedelic, Katja Loher’s “Bang Bang!” offers up a colorful investigation upon man’s interaction with his ecological environment. The elongated space of the C24 Gallery houses what is a seemingly cold empty space, but with popping manifestations of scattered globes upon the ceiling, we’re warmed by constant moving projections of videography. At first glance, one simply assumes the interchanging colors rotating into words (like “Bang Bang!” or “Why” or “Hope”) are some sort of Photoshop rendering, but at a closer look, we see the words form by individuals dressed in monochromatic leotards shape-shifting their bodies into swift movements indiscernible by the untrained eye. Although, perhaps what’s most fascinating, intriguing, and unique about Loher’s work are the glass globes that encase her small video installations.

While some glasses remain open at the top for us to peer into, others close at the top, hinting at a delicacy that acts as subtle and breakable protection. The bulging imperfections of the glass (some are not holistically round, but rather protrude out mimicking the formation of a bubble), obscure our view of the video and make us rethink what we’re looking at. The “roundness” (if I could call it that) Loher gives to her video art, changes previous perceptions and classic renderings we have about how video is projected and how we consume it. On top of that, it’s a political statement about the ecological world she’s commenting on. Perhaps, it is man who lives in a bubble, not realizing the dire need to in fact, preserve, for example, the world of bees (check out the documentary by Markus Imhoof More Than Honey for a great in depth analysis of the world’s reliance on bees).

There is one great moment in her films that showcases a man trying to escape from a box filled with styrofoam peanuts. As a light-hearted fairy-esque gaming sound motif plays lightly in the backdrop of the gallery, we can only think of the irony of man’s struggle. Much of what we thrive off of would not exist in reality were it not for the much-avoided land of honey bees, bats, butterflies, and hummingbirds, that she displays for us in this world of fantasy. She places each upon their own respective “gaming” device in a juxtaposed room. Man’s game with his environment may look alarmingly bright and cheerful in Loher’s world, but it is, at best, her way of commenting through mixed media, performance art, video art, and blown-glass that we should step out of our own dream worlds, as colorful and perfect as they may be, and question, as the ever-changing human bodies do, “Why?”.

Although “Bang Bang!” is no longer on display at the C24 Gallery, please take a look at Loher’s work at: http://www.c24gallery.com/exhibitions/katja-loher/

Review written by Bebe Nodjomi (http://independentfilmnow.com/?p=920)

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.