Game of Thrones, Season Five

The season premiere of Game of Thrones (Season Five) airs on April 12 and there is more excitement and anticipation surrounding the HBO show than any film coming down the immediate pike. Has the state of cinema become so dismal that the smaller screen at home (or computer screen or iPad) beckons more strongly than the big screen? It’s getting close, when long-form TV shows like Game of Thrones are giving audiences what certain kinds of films increasingly are not: majestic sweep, epic scope, unpredictability and faces they haven’t seen a hundred times before. HBO itself is largely to thank for this, going back to The Sopranos, that elongated opera of conflicted mobsters that was engrossing, amusing and disturbing. Adjectives that once upon a time described films like Seven Sarmurai or The Godfather or Kill Bill Vol. 2 and are now used to promote the interchangeable entries in the X-Men franchise.

Even as its limited budget occasionally shows its seams (the meager giants in Season Four), Game of Thrones has a certain and undeniable take-no-prisoners authenticity that remains true to tone, from the Season One shocker of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) getting beheaded to the Red Wedding in Season Three, when you could practically hear a collective gasp in the atmosphere outside your living room. When was the last time you heard a collective gasp in the cinema? Perhaps during last year’s powerful Ida, (directed by Pawel Pawlikowsk ) when Wanda (Agata Kulesza jumped out the window. And to be sure there are smaller films that can pack surprises (Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night comes to mind). This is not intended as a slam against the current state of film but more a note on the evolving nature of long-form television. With more advanced TV sets being developed, movie ticket prices climbing, and a paucity of truly stunning films making it through the financially-dependent development process, what many of us used to seek out in movie theaters can increasingly be found in the comfort of our homes. Perhaps we even need a new name for this long-form television, which is perilously close to replacing the film experience in theaters. Filmovision? Kidding. Still, when was the last time you walked out of a movie theater shaking your head and saying “Wow”? I’m willing to bet that lots of people will be doing just that come 10:00pm this Sunday night. Comments welcome.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo

Review written by Mike Fishman

In Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a nearly washed-up actor best known for playing a Hollywood super-hero called Birdman (not unlike Batman whom Keaton famously played in the first two films of that franchise in 1989 and 1992 directed by Tim Burton). Riggan is desperate to escape the shadow of the role that made him famous and he puts everything he’s got on the line (financially, emotionally, mentally) to direct and star in a dramatic play based on a short story by Raymond Carver that he desperately hopes will salvage his reputation if not resurrect his career. Along the way, Riggan battles with everyone around him (his co-stars, his lover, his daughter) and with Birdman himself, who appears like a specter or perhaps more accurately like one of those little devils floating above cartoon characters’ heads whispering evil encouragements, here life-size and with huge menacing wings. All the while, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera literally follows Riggen, mostly through the dark interiors of the St. James Theater where the film is set in extremely long shots edited together as if in one long take, creating a powerful sense of propulsion and urgency.

Keaton gives a committed performance, ironically playing down his usual squinty-eyed disapproval of everyone and everything around him, portraying a man who is put-upon by the world and trying to do just one good and worthy thing. Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis turn in typically strong performances while Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter Sam leaves little room for shades of gray in her exaggerated role as a druggie pessimist. The plot is as contained as the set and some scenes feel forced or even unnecessary. To what purpose other than titillation do we see Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough lock lips? And the casualness with which Riggan finishes a joint he finds on Sam after ripping into her for still using drugs feels like a weak attempt at portraying hypocrisy. Yet just as often there are remarkable scenes, such as when Keaton and Ed Norton as Riggan’s co-star in the play run through a scene in rehearsal, Norton’s infamous bad-boy stage actor Mike flashing his acting chops to a fiery yet receptive Riggan.

Through it all runs a magical realism that finds Riggan floating in the air and moving objects with his mind. The effects are outstanding, particularly a scene where Riggan literally flies over New York City. This reflection of Riggan’s Birdman, both the character and the inner demon, is potentially undercut by the film’s final scene in which Emma Stone’s Sam is seen staring out a window breaking into a smile apparently observing Riggan floating in the air. The impossibility of that occurring in real life can perhaps best be explained as being imagined images flashing through Riggan’s mind as he lay dying on stage after shooting himself in the head. Or perhaps he died earlier, jumping off the roof in the afore-memtioned scene that feels so real it’s shocking until Riggan re-appears soaring over the city street. The director himself has been mum on explaining the film’s ending except to say that it replaced an earlier “bad” ending. One has to wonder if that earlier ending was the more expected if not predictably satisfying one in which Sam, in a rare display of affection, lays her head on Riggan’s chest in the hospital where he lay recuperating from that gunshot wound that turned out to be a minor injury. Though even that defies logic as the way the gunshot is filmed, it seems clear Riggan is holding the gun directly to his head; in the hospital he’s told he shot his nose off but when he removes the bandage all we really see is a huge bruise. The ending will surely divide its audience and that’s not a bad thing as ultimately Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), infused with questions about the value of art and the power of criticism, certainly gives viewers much to chew on.

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.

Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, written by Kelly Marcel

Review written by Andrés Rosende

The sky is filled with dark clouds. A storm is coming. Or at least, that’s what we are promised. That is, in fact, the reason we are watching this film after all. That, and a good marketing and publicity campaign.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a literature student filling in for her sick friend en route to interview billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She is cute, insecure and a little clumsy. He is sophisticated, mysterious, attractive… and filthy rich. Love a first sight? The lack of chemistry between Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan is so evident, that it’s difficult to get past this premise. But in any case, could a premise be more stereotypical?

She comes out of the building, suffocating, the rain cooling her down. Unfortunately, the promise of arousal doesn’t ever get fulfilled and the only word that comes to mind after watching these particular people naked in elaborate sex scenes for two hours is boredom. The film seems like a housewife fantasy of forbidden love and female “empowerment” (of course by being saved by a wealthy prince charming and being submissive to him). Is this Twilight all over again? Do we really need to make more movies about women discovering their own pleasure by serving men?

Mr. Grey stalks Anastasia, buys her first editions of her favorite novels, a laptop, and even a car. He flies her around in his helicopter and takes her to his amazing (and soulless) apartment. Old fashion seduction? Next thing we know, Christian wants Anastasia to sign a contract to become his submissive. Now we learn she is a virgin. They have sex and sleep together…. and an incredible discovery occurs to Ana. She likes sex! Eventually we get to the playroom where he keeps all his sex toys.

This is supposed to be the climax of the film, the hottest sex scene, with whips and chains and the whole shebang… but it looks a lot like a 70s soft porn TV film. Eroticism? It would seem director Sam Taylor-Johnson has no clue what that is. And neither of our protagonists look very much into it. Nevertheless, they look happy. Until that night, where she isn’t happy anymore. She wants to understand why (let’s keep in mind that her main conflict in the film is getting the powerful man to cuddle with her after sex!).

The answer comes as if from a third grade psychology book (he was poor as a child and abused as a teen). Anastasia comes to the conclusion that the only way to understand him is by being punished (really? Why?). And then, the movie ends. She has grown up. She is a woman, strong, independent. She doesn’t need him anymore.

I’m not sure if the intention of this relationship was for each character to help each other grow – Christian becoming more in touch with his feelings; Anastasia more open to new experiences – but the reality is, when that elevator door closes at the end, we don’t care. There is nothing profound here; just a bunch of sexist stereotypes about gender roles and paper-thin characters. Jamie Dornan hardly seems to do, or need to do, anything to inhabit his “character.” Because the only thing he needs to become Christian Grey is to be hot, rich, and a good lover. And that is all he is. Why would anyone fall in love with him? Dakota Johnson does a much better job trying to give life to a ridiculous cardboard character. Her performance, one funny scene (when they discuss the terms of the sex contract) and a few good songs are the only redeeming qualities of Fifty Shades of Grey.

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.

2014 Best Film List – Brendan Rose

As Voltaire wrote: Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. The perfect is the enemy of the good. I take something similar away from the 2014 year in film: while the year was, I think, short on absolute masterpieces, 2014 constituted a varied, dynamic year in cinema, a year possessing a greater depth of high-quality offerings than almost any I remember. Just as Hollywood continued its obsession with war films and stodgy scientist-biopics (or combinations thereof), noteworthy auteurs took chances, creating idiosyncratic works of unique beauty, if not of hands-down perfection. Visually rigorous cinematography loomed large (Winter Sleep, Leviathan, Birdman, Ida, Inherent Vice, amongst others) just as thoughtful romantic-relationship films impressed (Love Is Strange, Top Five) and hipster vampires haunted our dreams (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Only Lovers Left Alive). But in the end, it was simple old solidarity which prevailed.

As with any year, there are some promising films I have not yet seen which may have easily found a place on this list. To name a few: Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh); Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez); Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang); Citizenfour (Laura Poitras); Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller).

Without further ado, here is the 2014 film list:

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne): Marion Cotillard paces this superb parable of the dog-eat-dog globalized economy as observed in rugged, industrial Belgium, with nearly every move by the brothers Dardenne coming off as pitch-perfect. Vive la solidarité!

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan): This Palme d’Or winner may lack the mesmerizing mystery and poetry of Bilge Ceylan’s recent otherworldly effort, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, but he astonishes here with this potent character study of a compromised, half-intellectual landowner in Cappadocia.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson): Smoked up and dazed and confused, P.T. Anderson’s ode to Thomas Pynchon, shady crooks and corrupt cops, and early 70s Los Angeles druggie, beach and low-life cultures captivates with numerous stand-out scenes, consistently powerful imagery, and a pervasive moody, wistful tone.

Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson): Anderson, for the first time in years, insists on providing his finely cultivated cinematic menagerie with compelling stakes – in this case an interbellum Europe about to explode – and the result is a spry, sensitive work seeped in an undercurrent of sad, regret-soaked loss.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater): The annual installments of this twelve-year-in-the-making film ebb and flow in quality and interest, but the sum of these dozen vignettes is nothing short of outstanding in terms of the scope of Linklater’s accomplishment.

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu): This zany movie detailing a shambolic, doomed theatrical production helmed by a fallen action flick hero brims with punchy, unhinged energy. Its long tracking shots through tight backstage hallways and its tête-à-têtes in cramped dressing rooms dazzle.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski): A journey toward deeper self-identity leads a 1960s young Polish nun to learn of family secrets tangled in the tragic events of Europe’s recent past. Painterly camerawork, masterfully efficient writing.

Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs): A gem of a film, understated in its emotional intensity, precisely, subtly performed, and memorable for a poignant third-act ellipsis.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer): A finely rendered, offbeat sci-fi thriller. Scarlett Johansson handles alien material perfectly as Glazer’s film becomes progressively more uncomfortable and bleak.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour): The most inventive American indie of the year is this Farsi-language, art-school-kid vampire movie, sardonic in tone, cleverly cultured, proudly singular in vision.

HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev); Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch); Selma (Ava DuVernay); Top Five (Chris Rock); We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson)

2014 Best Film list compiled by Brendan Rose

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Jason Hall

Review written by Andrés Rosende

American Sniper opens with a scene full of tension. A convoy of American soldiers walks through the desolate streets of an Iraqi town. Our hero, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), overlooks the scene from a nearby roof, rifle in hand. He sees a mother giving a grenade to her young son, who runs towards the convoy. Kyle has to make an impossible call: either he kills the kid or his fellow marines could die. Eastwood takes us to the edge of our seats. You can feel the audience holding its breath. At this moment, we flashback to Kyle’s childhood, youth, and the reasons he became a NAVY Seal and the most deadly sniper in American history.

Clint Eastwood is one of the last – maybe the last – classical directors in Hollywood. His pulse behind the camera is always firm. His talent with actors is also obvious and he has never shied away from controversial themes, sometimes even presenting ideas against his own beliefs as when addressing euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby. All of this is true about American Sniper. It’s good drama, with a strong, complex character. It delivers a great performance and addresses a delicate issue. I was excited through the whole film and there are some scenes that are masterfully done, including the fore-mentioned scene when Kyle is forced to kill a child and the final showdown in the middle of a sand storm.

Nonetheless, I can’t call American Sniper a great film and there is something about it that bugged me throughout. Eastwood decided not to make a political comment with this story, not acknowledging that that is impossible. Therefore, what happens is that everybody brings to the theater his or her own views of this issue and filters the movie through them. Is Chris Kyle a psychopathic murderer elevated to an American icon, or is he a true hero, a patriot who scarifies his life for his country?

By the end of the film, it’s clear that Eastwood’s main concern is to add to the myth and portrait of a sympathetic hero – damaged by war, perhaps, but an honorable man who, despite all he goes through, is also a great husband and father. In doing so, he gives us a simplistic, good versus evil, black and white view of a war that should never have happened. In point of fact, American Sniper makes some dangerous associations: Kyle decides to join the SEALS after seeing the Twin Towers go down; a few months later he is killing people (every male 16 to 65 he encounters) in a country that had nothing to do with those attacks in New York. All of them are refereed to in the film as “savages.”

The film’s lack of a clear ideology has motivated a lot of hatred and irrational comments on its Twitter feed, which could stand as a lesson to artists that they should be very careful when addressing complex issues in a simplistic way. “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fucking Arabs,” one Twitter user wrote. Another commented: “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us.” And yet another: “Teared up at the end of American Sniper. Great fucking movie and now I really want to kill some fucking ragheads.”

Contrary to what what Kyle’s father tells him in the beginning of the film, we cannot divide people in this world into “sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.” Life is much more complicated than that. And the Clint Eastwood who directed Unforgiving and Letters from Iwo Jima knows it.

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.

Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski

This straight drama, unusual for director Tim Burton, is based on the true story of 1950’s painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her struggle to step out of the shadows and make public that her manipulative husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) had been taking credit for her unique work for years. It’s refreshing to see a Tim Burton film free of the gothic and to find him working with actors other than his usual Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Big Eyes marking the first major Burton film not to feature Bonham Carter in a role since they began their parternship in 2001 which ended with their break-up in 2014. Still, there are some nice Burton touches here and there, his visual flair most evident in a shot of an eyeball peering through a keyhole; a scene set in Hawaii in which colors from flowers pop off the screen; and most notably a nightmarish moment in a supermarket where Margaret hallucinates shoppers around her sporting the huge eyes that defined her art.

Other than these occasional flourishes, Big Eyes is a largely straightforward telling of Margaret Keane’s story and her (often creepy) portraits of mostly children with huge dark eyes that at best straddled the border between pop art and kitsch. As Margaret, Amy Adams does an admirable job of portraying a strong yet conflicted woman pushing against the constraints of the era’s patriarchal society. Adams is particularly adept at expressing conflicting emotions and in scenes in which doubt, self-doubt and self-recrimination play across her face simultaneously, she fully inhabits the character, well earning her Golden Globe for Best Actress for the role. She even does a credible job of smoking, something many actors seem clearly awkward at, though perhaps her perfect teeth are a bit too perfect when Burton’s camera goes in for a close-up, which is often. Speaking of teeth, Christoph Waltz can always be counted on to chew his way through a scene like cud and, if you like that sort of thing, he doesn’t disappoint as Keane’s charismatic, ambitious-to-a-fault husband who at first takes credit for her work knowing it will be easier to get the paintings sold but continues the ruse as the money pours in.

In the end, the unveiling of his deception depends upon Walter being able to create a “big eyes” painting in the moment, in front of a judge and jury. The court proceedings are presented rather comically, in large part due to Waltz’s grandiose gestures and posturing especially when acting as his own counsel and cross-examining himself. Walter, apparently completely lacking any artistic talent, doesn’t even try to paint while Margaret immediately sets to work, creating another signature piece. It does make one wonder though that in all those years, Walter never picked up a brush and taught himself to replicate Margaret’s style; we’re not exactly talking Picasso here. Ultimately, Big Eyes is an entertaining fact-based film about a female artist eventually coming into her own despite a society predisposed to male artists and a con artist husband passing off her work as his own, well worth re-visiting for its period detail and strong performances.

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.

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.