Another year, another Woody Allen film. Apparently having few interests other than directing films and playing clarinet, Mr. Allen has continued churning out his signature comedies at a regular pace, marking this as his 47th feature film since 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? (though perhaps it’s more accurate to reference 1969’s Take the Money and Run as his first film of wholly original material) and his 17th since 2000 ushered in Small Time Crooks. Whether he has in him another great film like 2013’s Blue Jasmine remains to be seen but there is no doubt that his latest offering, Café Society, belongs firmly in the category of the majority of his late period oeuvre: often clever, generally interesting, but occasionally feeling rushed or unpolished. And so for every witty line we get in Café Society (“When a Jew cooks something, it’s always overcooked, because they want to kill all the germs”) there is dialogue too on-the-nose or just pretentious proclamations that might have generated laughs in his early comedies but here are delivered with too little irony. A running voiceover narration by Mr. Allen is unnecessary and at times oddly recounts what just transpired on-screen or tells us what we already know. It’s almost as if Allen adapted the screenplay from a work of fiction and just couldn’t bear to toss out the narration because he’s in love with the sound of the words. And with Allen not appearing in the film, the nagging question might well be asked, who is this narrator anyway?
But the wondrous elements of Allen’s best work are here in this tale of an uncertain young man from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg) trying his luck in Hollywood with the help of his agent uncle (Steve Carell) but falling in love with his uncle’s mistress (Kristen Stewart): the period music, the energetic editing, the evocative photography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, here working digitally but softening the images to a golden glow (for more on that see: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/cinematographer-vittorio-storaro-filming-cafe-911441). And the setting of 1930’s Hollywood with its cars and gangsters, furs and handshake deals, should prove catnip to fans of classic Hollywood.
The love triangle, too, is more involving than we’ve seen from Allen in some time, with all three characters portrayed at various points having to respond to a sudden revelation of the other’s complicating involvement. Kristen Stewart as Vonnie, the love interest, has come a long way since the ancient history of the Twilight films and the unintended absurdities of Snow White and the Huntsman, and Café Society gives her more to work with than last year’s Equals, though that moody sci-fi was certainly a more ambitious film. Blake Lively, on the other hand, is given a pitifully small role in which she not surprisingly shines and it’s unfortunate Allen did not make more use of her. Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby, now appearing in his second film with the director, does excellent work as the expected Woody Allen surrogate (as usual for Allen a curiously not very likable main character) and calls to mind Tony Roberts, the always-great supporting actor in several of Allen’s earlier comedies. Steve Carell as Uncle Phil, the third wheel in the love triangle, is reined in here and like so many great comedians who have dabbled in dramatic roles (Albert Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Garry Shandling, Robin Williams to name a few), the more restrained, the better, the more power the funny man (not being funny) exudes.
The film ends on a refreshingly uncertain note with Vonnie and Bobby (did they really need to have rhyming names?) pining for each other while still committed to their marriages. Perhaps predictably, Bobby pines more than Vonnie, who seems perfectly fine with her marriage to the much older and wealthy Phil. As uncertainty exudes from Eisenberg’s puppy dog eyes, clearly not quite sure how much in love he still is with his wife, we might wonder if Allen is subconsciously (or otherwise) presenting his own view of women as more complacent creatures when it comes to marriages of convenience. In any case and despite its shortcomings, the film’s great period detail should transport viewers to an earlier time and help fill the gaps between the weak moments of the film and keep minds from wandering too far before the end.
Based on the book by Lewis Carroll, Disney brings us Alice Through the Looking Glass directed by James Bobin and produced by Tim Burton. The story follows Alice who returns to the whimsical world of Wonderland and travels back in time to save the Mad Hatter. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Clayton P. comments, “Disney’s Alice Through The Looking Glass is a magical fantasy adventure film in the great Tim Burton tradition. It is also a refreshing, feminist take on the classic Lewis Carroll story.” See his full review below.
Alice Through The Looking Glass
Review by Clayton Pickard, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16
Film synopsis: A New-Ancient thought-provoking thriller: Five vastly separate inner-city lives struggle against their limitations in an interlocking story assembled by a dark orchestrator. All five characters play their hand in an obscure playground they find themselves in. As answers begin to unravel, so does their sanity…
This film presents us with 5 characters and several themed chapters in which they are facing various struggles, and not all is what it seems. Although the movie opens with a scene in an actual school playground, the true playground we discover is the world itself and its inhabitants. Within this playground are humans destroying themselves and each other. The destructive elements include lying, cheating, murder and deception for evil gains without regard for others. Faith and religion are questioned when times are difficult, but that is when it is needed most for those who choose to believe.
There is a married couple struggling to maintain their marriage, a young priest questioning if he has what is necessary to fulfill his calling, a homeless man tempted by outward riches while searching for substance and faith within himself, and a blindly ambitious businessman looking to attain and display wealth at all costs regardless of how ill-gotten they are. Their stories are interwoven and there are secondary characters who influence the main characters further complicating their situations.
Each of them are tested and their choices like a domino effect ultimately lead them to their ends. We see unquestionably outright destructive behaviors, but the more frequent incremental and seemingly harmless actions lead to ultimately similar if not more dreadful consequences. They are caught up in fear, insecurity and doubts in faith.
There is a lot of running away physically and spiritually in this film, but no one can run away from themselves. The human struggle is universal and personal at once. We can identify with a spiritual force of choice guiding our actions but it does not exempt us from any responsibility. You believe what you choose to. If it changes something in you in either direction, reassess yourself and where you stand. No one else can make those decisions for you in anything, including your faith.
Based on the Popular Play Station Game, An Adventure Suitable For Younger Kids. Ratchet & Clank tells the story of two unlikely heroes as they struggle to stop a vile alien named Chairman Drek from destroying every planet in the Solana Galaxy. When the two stumble upon a dangerous weapon capable of destroying entire planets, they must join forces with a team of colorful heroes called The Galactic Rangers in order to save the galaxy. Along the way they’ll learn about heroism, friendship, and the importance of discovering one’s own identity.
KIDS FIRST! Film Critics Abigail Zoe L. and Ryan R. review the film.
Ratchet & Clank
By Abigail Zoe L., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 8
Interviews with cast & crew:
Ratchet & Clank
Reviewed by Ryan R., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 12
I am happy to report that 2015 was another vibrant, inspiring year for cinema. While the year’s film landscape may be dominated by the fairly stellar return of the galactic juggernaut better known as the Star Wars franchise, the idiosyncratic, singular visions of a score of filmmakers would better represent the year’s achievements. From Mali to Mexico City to the South Side of Chicago, important films were made outside the Hollywood system and at a remove from genre conventions.
As we approach Oscar night, it should be noted that the nominees for the Academy Awards once again highlight how lacking in true diversity the industry remains. Whether it relates to which artists receive award nominations or, perhaps more important, which artists are supported in creating work, Hollywood remains a (straight) white boys’ club, one desperately in need of a greater variety of voices and perspectives.
As with any year, there were promising films I simply have not gotten to yet. To name a few: Brooklyn, Creed, In Jackson Heights, Son of Saul, and Taxi, are 2015 movies I still look forward to viewing.
Without further ado, here is the 2015 film list:
TOP TEN (in order):
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako): Sissako’s masterpiece looks at this famed multicultural city of learning and trade as it suffers during an occupation by fundamentalist invaders. The movie’s patchwork of incisive stories and its quietly poetic style demand a world of tolerance, humility, and forceful humanism.
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien): Hou’s plot may at times confound, but this wuxia-inspired martial-arts flick set in medieval China brims with cinematic lyricism via textured, potent visuals and expert, tone-setting sound design. A consistently powerful lead performance by Shu Qi paces this elliptical, mesmerizing, dream of a film.
Carol (Todd Haynes): Haynes’s astounds with this flawless, finely orchestrated love story of two women in a world (1950s New York City) not ready to accept who they are. The grainy, expressive Super 16mm cinematography of DP Edward Lachman reminds us that celluloid is far from dead.
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu): This is no perfect film — the third act feels too much like a Liam Neeson revenge vehicle — but it is undoubtedly a work of art, an epic-scale canvas detailing early 19th Century fur trappers and foreign armies overtaking the west, thereby destroying the cultures of indigenous America Indians and despoiling the natural environment.
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven): A well-crafted debut feature that serves up a classic tale of societal and generational conflict in provincial Turkey. Ergüven sustains the sort of originality of perspective and freshness of voice often lacking in such early-career films.
Tangerine (Sean S. Baker): Baker’s exuberant, zany comedy about transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles functions as American independent films more often could — with non-traditional casting, crafty filmmaking, a nitty-gritty sense of its world, and, deep down, a big, generous heart.
Ex Machina (Alex Garland): An expertly performed, dexterously executed sci-fi thriller set in the hermetically sealed, middle-of-nowhere palace/laboratory of a billionaire software CEO/mad scientist. Hitchcock meets Philip K Dick.
Chi-Raq (Spike Lee): Lee’s re-imaging of Lysistrata to violence-plagued Chicago is at times overly campy and caricatured, but the film is likewise bold and humorous, inventive and necessary. Where are the other filmmakers confronting the scourge of gun violence?
The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt): Jason Segel impresses as late writer David Foster Wallace, and Ponsoldt’s movie resurrects the art of conversation, embracing the power of its tête-à-tête, writer-on-writer bull sessions.
Güeros (Alonso Ruiz Palacios): The spirit of Godard is repurposed in Ruiz Palacios’s rollicking, clever coming-of-age picture set during a student protest in Mexico City, 1999. So many scenes stand out and remain with you, months later.
HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): The Big Short (Adam McKay); The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller); Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad); Sand Dollars (Laura Amelia Guzmán & Israel Cárdenas); Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
BEST GENRE FLICKS (not mentioned above):
Creepy Thriller: Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)
Horror: It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
Historical Drama: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
Sci-Fi: The Martian (Ridley Scott)
Action-Adventure: Everest (Baltasar Kormákur)
Action-Crime: Black Mass (Scott Cooper)
Action-Geo-Political: Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Capital I, a film by Indian director Amartya Bhattacharyya, is a surreal journey of awakening and contradiction. We follow Piyali, a young Indian woman who is studying psychology and is dealing with her inner issues. She is curious as others are in her town about a mysterious death in a house. Her persistent thirst for knowledge and information creates a sort of instability for her and her relationship with others. Her quest is displayed with music, sounds, colors and dreamlike sequences. When she is not discussing philosophy and existentialism with her professor, she is working out her issues with an imaginary female character in her mind. This character seems to represent her free and wild side she struggles to keep hidden. There is a dilemma, especially in a culture like hers, as a woman to keep a veil over her true desires and strength. Truth can only be hidden for so long before it is inevitably revealed and there is no way to avoid or control it. It is in the hiding that distortions and aberrations may arise and do harm.
The film takes a circuitous path, jumping here and there. It seems to say that in life we can do or believe or be what we choose, the destination is the same in the end. Our lives and the concept of time are an illusion, as is the need to always be in control not seeing the grand picture. Humans have a deep need for order, connection and meaning. Questions are what make this film interesting, posing questions and also causing the viewer to question as well. It does not say: here are the answers; it says keep experiencing and questioning. I also enjoyed the focus on the female energy as life, creation, birth and renewal extended to everything in our world and beyond, the theme repeated throughout the film.
Bhattacharyya also uses horoscopic symbolism and the color red, to represent various feelings and states of being. There are drawings accompanied by spoken poetry woven into the story to add more weight to the film. As the film progresses it feels more and more layered and substantial to the point that you are in it and not just a viewer. Occasionally the film’s stylistic leanings caused me to fall out of the story but such moments were few and brief. On the other hand, some moments have the power to fully envelop the viewer. I could see hints of Luis Buñuel’s filmmaking, where discomfort in watching a scene does not detract from its intriguing quality. Whichever moments these may turn out to be for you are personal, of course, dependent upon your own feelings going in and openness as a viewer.
A few minutes into watching this film, I have to confess I could have stopped watching as I was not prepared for its surreal structure, but I am so glad I didn’t. The gift of Capital I is the space it leaves for the audience to think for themselves. Relax and go for the ride.
The challenge with any horror film or psychological thriller is to remain unpredictable up to the very end where audiences hope, and expect, one final twist of the real/metaphorical knife. And The Badger Game does this brilliantly, after taking viewers on an intense, occasionally gory often harrowing 99-minute journey. The acting is strong and committed throughout and the filmmakers wring impressive tension out of the basic revenge/kidnapping plot and limited locales. Sweet-faced blonde Alex (an appealing Augie Duke) convinces ex-friend Shelly (an excellent Jillian Leigh) to become part of a scheme to exact revenge on Alex’s married boyfriend Liam (Sam Boxleitner) who dumped her. The plan: kidnap him and hold him until he agrees to wire money from his fat savings account into Alex’s and then let him go, no real harm done and lesson learned for Liam (don’t fuck with Alex; in fact, don’t fuck around at all anymore, return to the fold of your faithful wife and family).
Unfortunately for their not-best-laid-plans, Alex relies on Kip (Patrick Cronen), her psycho brother, for the muscle who, if he were a driver, would be referred to as having a lead foot. In other words, it doesn’t take much for Kip to flip and bash someone over the head or strangle them to death whether he knows them or not (a third co-conspirator, the alluring Jane (Sasha Higgins) meets a very unfortunate fate not long after Kip flirts with her). Without giving too much away, Liam turns out to be a hemophiliac, thus reacting badly to some rough handling from Kip; a detective Liam’s wife had hired to spy on him gets in between Kip and a lawn tool; and pretty soon Kip realizes his co-conspirators are potential witnesses and, well, there’s only one away to truly get rid of potential witnesses. Kip is resourceful, too, and one can pick up a few pointers here about how to properly dispose of a body sans fingerprints and identifiable teeth.
In The Badger Game (the term refers to a means of blackmail, extortion or intimidation, especially one based on a sexually compromising situation) filmmakers Josh Wagner and Thomas Zambeck keep the tension riding high with occasional moments of slow if still labored breathing. While it’s easy to root for Shelly and Liam to survive, Duke’s Alex is a more complicated case. She’s the instigator of the crime and must know what her unbalanced brother is capable of. When things start to spiral out of control, she struggles with her desire for revenge and the love she still feels for Liam. She didn’t want Liam dead after all, she just wanted some easy money and to teach him a hard lesson. How things will end remains uncertain to the very (satisfying) end, the tension augmented nicely by the music used throughout, ranging from unsettling dissonant jazz to punk, punctuating the very dark doings.
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.
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.