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5 Mar

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In Lucas We Trust

The rollout of pictures on the calendar  for 2015 told you everything you needed to know about the year in film. A required offering of sequels and reboots anchored by the Christmas release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens guaranteed that event release studios covet, where projected 200 million dollar first week numbers for a mega blockbuster of this magnitude would be looked upon as disappointing. JJ Abrahams a director and storyteller adroit at re-imagining what people loved about the tales and touchstones that defined their youth  was handed the Glengarry lead of franchises by Kathleen Kennedy of Lucas Films to guarantee a hefty return on their 300 million plus investment. A blockbuster that comes with comic book and cartoon spinoffs, toys and collectibles, fast food marketing, Lego video games, a slew of product licensing from soup can labels to “Darkside” flavored gourmet ice cream and other tie ins. The so-called, quote-unquote, according to the Star Wars creator “white slavers” at Disney looked to do rather well for the 40 billion dollar payout Lucas received when they  acquired the most coveted brand in all of entertainment. That being said, there simply is not a mass movie going culture anymore with video on demand and streaming readily available. I am one of those guilty of foregoing a trip to the theater when a month or two from now  I can have relatively same experience in the comfort of my own home.

Last year during a Hollywood Reporters executive roundtable studio heads stressed their brand, scheduling and rollouts for the all important franchise picture, a Magic Mike sequel looked on as such, that next installment dictate the profit margin at year’s end because of return ticket sales. And nothing is more tried and true than the reboot, they make up three of the year’s top five grossing films at the box office, Star Wars and Jurassic World a billion and a half one-two punch to date. Jurassic World being one of the films along with Mad Max: Fury Road, Pointbreak, Terminator Genisys, and Creed as part of the summer preview I had to ask myself, do we need another one of those? Stallone is once again in the corner as Rocky and Daniel Craig solidifies his legacy as maybe the best Bond ever with Spectre (Yes, whenever a new 007 signs on to her majesties secret service that qualifies as a reboot for the franchise). I guess it’s not for me to say what will get people out on a friday night, two of those offerings are critics darlings and people just can’t get enough of those gosh-darn dinosaurs. Only the Terminator project that elected to disregard the beloved Cameron storyline was universally panned. True to form devotees of The Hunger Games final installment, Divergent and The Maze Runner follow ups filled the seats as YM fare dominated. Comic book stuff with all its bells and whistles are always a draw even when it all seems run-of-the-mill at this point. Like the animated releases that’s hard to distinguish one from the next, these movies unimaginative of late are what the family moviegoers continue to demand, Inside Out probably the best of the genre this year. With television, specifically cable TV now the outlet for what was once considered independent cinema and as the Amazons, Netflixs and service outlets and most notably  Hulu get into the film game they need to be aware of marketing and theatrical runs, Netflix mishandling of their brilliant first theatrical feature Beasts Of No Nation resulting  in that picture  being passed over during awards season. Rummaging through any number of projects before the prestige releases at year’s end I have to say the majority of those films were remarkably underwhelming. I am not going to name names but when you take into consideration the effort that is required to plan and finance a studio picture the result should not be simply mediocre. To quote a college of mine “mediocrity is a disease”.  And the film business being what it is, how one gets a project greenlit is a mystery of Hitchcockian proportions. A great pitch does not a picture make.

On the OscarsSoWhite hashtag uproar, it’s not that Hollywood is racist, the industry is exclusive, where a large number of the decision makers are white and male. That is what works for them, that’s what has always worked and why change the process that is the basis of a multi billion dollar industry is their mindset I’m thinking. It’s a club that few people get a chance to join. The larger discussion to me has always been who gets to dictate how we’re all represented in the films that go out all over the world as the culture evolves because the percentage as it stands is disproportionately low.



1. Beasts Of No Nation

  • available on Netflix

I dare anyone to tell me different when it comes to the best feature film this past year. Nothing comes close to the what Carl Fukunaga has put up on the screen under the Netflix banner. This brutal and stunningly acted film is an unflinching view from a child in an unnamed war torn African country stripped of all he holds dear and left with no choice but to participate in atrocities to get along. Agu, portrayed by newcomer Abraham Attah has to rely on his wits and wait out this nightmare he has been trussed into, doing the best he can in order stay alive and simply survive under the most extreme circumstances. The promotional material clearly state that “children are not soldiers” and one can clearly understand as you watch this mischievous child we are initially introduced to do things under the watch of The Commandant; a seductive, manipulative junta leader played by Edris  Ilba, his critically acclaimed performance has no equal. A more hideous Fagan from Dickens famous tome where young men are cajoled and forced to do the deeds of those who take them in. Once with the rebels our young protagonist is forced to go through a harrowing indoctrination and each successive episode that follows contributes to the loss of innocence of the carefree young man we first get to know playing imagination TV with his friends. Like his fellow child solider Strika Agu’s reactions speak volumes to what he relates in the voice over narration. And as the soldiers campaign wages we quickly realize that there is no clear humanity to speak of by the occupying forces. Leaving an indelible impression this film overall had me uneasy subject-wise and in sheer awe when it comes to the execution of story.


2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Septuagenarian director George Miller finally brings his on again off again,  years in the making  action-er sans Mel Gibson as the titular Max with Charlize Theron technically in the lead role as Imperator Furiousa in this slam bam popcorn movie that sets the bar pretty high for blockbusters going forward. You can’t help but admire what is basically a chase film set in a post apocalyptic landscape that is so fully realized and has heart, you root for all the participants from the stolen away maidens of Immortan Joe the messianic leader who controls the water supply. To the War Boys serving under him he is a deity, they simply crave his acknowledgement “witness me!”and the denizens of Gastown and the Bullet Farm who have their interests to protect. Your heart goes out to Nux played by Nicholas Hoult as you watch him want to matter so that he is willing to go to Valhalla (give his life) in doing so. Furiousa is all of Aliens Ripley and every bit Sarah Conner going toe to toe with the boys. Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky is simply the same Max we’ve known from the beginning, wanting to go his own way, haunted by those he has failed in the past and not looking to get involved with what he is confronted with now. Ever inventive stunt sequences and practical effect galore go counter to the heavy-handed CGI formula we’ve grown accustomed to and in doing so bests every single big release this year in pure spectacle.


3. The Revenant

This film  inspired by Hugh Glass’ exploits in the early 1800s is Iñárritu’s take on John Ford’s The Searchers with parts Fitzcaraldo.  And to top it off the director goes ahead and out Terrance Malicks Terrence Malick in the process to the nth degree which is the highest praise I can bestow on this level of film-making. Leonardo DiCaprio’s immersive performance is profound,  leaving you breathless with its grandeur and wonderment set against the brutality of the frontier. The resurrection that is acted out as Glass methodically returns to exact his revenge in a satisfying climactic showdown is the stuff of films of yore. The one and only Tom Hardy and emerging star Domhnall Gleeson are no slouches either  as they round out a supporting cast that does all it can not to get upstaged by the attack sequence involving a bear. My hat goes off to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for capturing such stunning images under those conditions in South America in the winter  and the Mid West here in the US with a palette limited to the use of available light for all but two scenes.


4. Ex Machina

Screenwriter Alex Garland explores the God complex of tech genius Nathan Bateman played with relish by Oscar Isaac who is on the verge of a breakthrough in AI at his retreat secluded away deep in the mountains. When Bateman awards a golden ticket to one of his programmers to share what he has come up with, given exclusive access to what he believes will change the world, this staff lottery winner has no idea what’s in store. What initially seems “super cool” to Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith begins to get super weird in a hurry in their restricted confines. Nathan has Caleb administer the Turing test to Ava, a way of evaluating his work to determine if the humanoid he has engineered is ready to be reveled as the technological breakthrough he hopes. The dialogue of ideas and philosophy bristles as they butt heads over her. Can a machine truly emote genuine feelings, have an actual consciousness? That is the underlying question. Caleb is sympathetic to Alicia Vikander in the role as the not fully formed prototype and this leads to certain revelations and an unsettling conclusion. First time director Garland shows exceptional form in this science fiction cautionary tale.


5. Straight Outta Compton

This biopic chronicling the meteoric rise of the seminal gangster rap group of the Mtv era directed by F Gary Gray (an up and coming music video director at the time) gives a vivid account of the circumstances that had these young black men from the streets of Compton with the help of manager Jerry Heller  topping the charts and on the FBI watchlist because of their songs and controversial stage performances. The flip-side of concert tours and music videos; hanger-ons, guns and groupies come at a cost. When the comradery that fueled the creation of the seminal album Straight Outta Compton which introduced gangster rap to the  world and  changed the face of music begets infighting that leads to the group breaking up over contracts and loyalty. In a whirlwind of intimidation and violence it all in the end seems to come down to the almighty dollar.  A climate in Los Angeles at the time really begs the chicken or the egg question in regards to what influenced what; were Easy, Dre, Cube, Ren and Yella  simply reporting on drive-bys, pimps, the dope game and what went on in the streets rhyming over  beats by Dr. Dre or was that record what gave rise to the gangster culture. The cast of relative unknowns really sells this tale with some spot on portrayals along with knockout performances.


nina simoneWhat Happened, Miss Simone?

  • available on Netflix

At the beginning of last year there was a hue and cry surrounding a biopic of this beguiling and outspoken performer. The glamorization in portrayals of real life characters has always gone on but this Netflix documentary shows why there ain’t nothing like the real thing. This North Carolina native has layers to her character that you see through archival footage of trenchant performances and revealing interviews. The arch of her career answers the question posed in the title What Happened, Miss Simone? I can only hope that when the attempt to get a feature film on her life to the screen again that they will source this powerful documentary.


6. The Big Short

That rich people are dysfunctional is a given. When Bernie Madoff rips people off and has no compunction in doing so knowing full well that they will lose their life savings even when it’s clear he obviously doesn’t need the money, you see where director Adam McKay is going with this film. If the housing crisis had zero effect on you I would see where the humor in average hardworking Americans  falling for a scam that got a bunch of  Wall Street wisenheimers stinking rich. One well crafted script based on the national bestseller by Michael Lewis gives this A list ensemble cast of Gosling, Carell, Bale and Pitt the right to go all out Monty Python. Imaginative ways of explaining hedge funds and subprime mortgages with celebrity cameos and characters breaking the fourth wall makes this savvy farce a must see.


7. Anomalisa

This is what Charlie Kaufman does, he brings out what is most venerable in his characters, that uneasiness or embarrassment that may be have a crippling effect he forces you to focus your attention on when you instinctively want so much to look away. I recall his directorial debut, the heart wrenching Synecdoche, New York in 2008 bringing a friend of mine  to tears at that screening. This time around he uses a uniquely original stop motion technique to tell the story of a customer service guru stay at a hotel the night before a speaking engagement. A cartoon  which has no flights of fancy, musical numbers, cute character of the hint of comedy which is the staple of the normal animation not rated R. The chain-smoking, sex obsessed protagonist voiced by David Thewlis again and again  finds himself in awkward situations both imagined and real. The melancholy of individuals trying to connect is the underlying theme of this inventive film.


The Death Of Superman “Superman Lives”; What Happened?

The giant mechanical spider fight sequence the exec pitches to the bewildered director is legendary in film circles (at least in mine), I have told that story at least a dozen times myself. So when I hear Kevin Smith’s take on it, revealing that producer John Peters  was the one who wanted to have a robot with multiple legs do battle in what was to be the Tim Burton Superman project starring Nicholas Cage well… they had me at Hello. I love this documentary! I love stuff about how that project or this project  got made and all the behind the scenes back and forth. Amusing antidotes from  Smith –the original screenwriter before Wesley Strick was asked to step in– about the  wheeling and dealing will have you think he should pursue a career on the speaking circuit instead of his chosen vocation. Test footage of Nick Cage in the suit for fanboys to spaz out about, this film unlike any other  gives inexhaustible insight into the development of the blockbuster that never was Superman Lives. Millions squandered in said development, an array of out-there personalities, farfetched opinions by anyone who had a say and script revisions galore with each new  group that’s brought onboard. The  countless costume and character design costs to tally as more meetings were taken. In their own words accounts by Smith, Burton, Peters, Dan Gilroy and a long list of other scribes, artists, noted designer Colleen Atwood, various members of the creative team assembled over the years between nineteen ninety-six and nineteen ninety-eight before finally going ahead and pulling the plug. And according to director Tim Burton he will wrestle with why this movie didn’t get made well into his later years.


8. Bridge Of Spies

Mister Hanks takes on the cold war in this Capraesque telling of a story based on actual events. This recent pairing of Spielberg and his buddy is  so old Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Atticus Finch take your pick, never has there been a more earnest character up on the screen. The back and forth by government agencies, the US court system and the minutia of geopolitical wrangling won’t deter our straight arrow protagonist who must convince his fellow attorneys, family and the American public in spite of bias towards the political prisoner he is assigned to defend to observe his rights and do the human thing.


Trailer 2015: Deadpool Red Band

Ryan Reynolds seems to have a charmed life; People‘s sexiest man, the knockout wife and he seems like a decent person. The film career … whew! This clip of an R rated Marvel Studios superhero release looks pretty killer.


9. The Tribe

New kid at a private school gets hazed and then is initiated in a gang. That would be the logline for this critics darling first feature by Ukrainian writer and director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, but… (and there is a but) But the entire cast of this  film are hearing impaired and communicate only in sign language, and… there are no subtitles. For the first few minutes of the film you feel like a voyeur, and as I kept watching I personally felt excluded somehow, like the audience was meant to be left out. But not knowing exactly what’s being communicated does not take away one bit from this highly charged look inside of a criminal enterprise with his classmates that includes robbery and prostitution. Dare i say this brutally violent amoral story told in a lyrical silent film way is part of its charm.


10. Phoenix

In a ravaged post Nazi  Berlin an Auschwitz survivor struggles to find her identity after plastic surgery to her disfigured face and while trying to piece together a life knowing she was betrayed by her husband who she still has strong feeling for. Nina Hoss gives a haunting performance as the singer recruited by Johnny once she tracked him down. Encouraged to help him get his wife’s inheritance with a woman who believes has a striking resemblance to his former spouse he believes is deceased. Without recognizing her, he enlists her to play his wife in a bizarre hall-of-shattered-mirrors story that is as richly metaphorical as it is preposterously engrossing. There is psyche damning  love in this film reminiscent of the all time masterpiece Vertigo.  Director Christian Petzold addresses the Jewish German dynamic in this standout piece of German cinema.


Film View Notables

Actor Male: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Actor Female: Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Brie Larson (Room)
Supporting  Actor Male: Idris Elba (Beasts Of No Nation)
Supporting Actor Female: Cate Blanchett (Carol)
Breakthrough Performance: Abraham Attah (Beasts Of No Nation)
Director: Cary Fukunaga (Beasts Of No Nation)
Original Screenplay: Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
Adapted Screenplay: Cary Fukunaga (Beasts Of No Nation)
Director Of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
Visual Effects: Rich McBride (The Revenant)
Editor: Michael Kahn (Bridge Of Spies)
Soundtrack: Daniel Pemberton [score], Various Artists [music] (The Man From UNCLE)
Artisans: Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road [A]), Joel Egerdon (Black Mass [A], The Gift [W, D]), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man From Uncle [A]), Roger Deakins (Scicario [DP]), Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Legend [A]), Ryan Coogler (Creed [W, D]), Bryan Cranston (Trumbo [A]), Robert Richardson (The Hateful 8 [DP]), Jacob Trombly (Room [A]), Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant [A]), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton [A])
Artistic Merit: The Assassin, Macbeth, Scicario, 99 Homes, Chi-Raq, Spotlight, The Gift, Everest, Trumbo, Love, Legend, Joy
Guilty Pleasure: The Man From UNCLE
My To Do List: Inside Out, Steve Jobs, Tangerine, 45 Years, Brooklyn, Amy, Son Of Saul. In my defense binge watching Archer on FX takes up a helluva lotta my time.


1 Mar



The Interview Sook

The Never-ending Press Junket   

With Seth Rogen and James Franco the tusks at the head of this heavily debated project, the floppy ears slapstick nature we’ve grown accustomed to by Rogen and his creative bud Evan Goldberg, a heaving trunk violent conclusion that symptomatic of cliché writing that defines mainstream releases and a curly tail cutesy performance by Diana Bang as Sook, the elephant in the room when it comes to media this past year is  The Interview. Sony pulling the highly anticipated film from it’s Christmas release because of a terrorist threat supposedly by the North Korean government in response to the fact the trailer makes lite of killing that country’s leader sent shockwaves through the entertainment community. Because the Asian market is vital to studio interests and in 2014  we get all our information on the interweb, the hack of the studios execs emails exposing embarrassing and off-color remarks about stars gave a little insight into the wheeling and dealing inside the studio system and resulted in higher-ups being let go. The fallout from the cyber terrorism had president Obama weigh in on the poorly reviewed, funny in spots Rogen and Franco run of the mill yuck-fest that finally got a limited release and was available for streaming. The back and forth on freedom of expression has the film on course to become synonymous with that issue the way 2 Live Crew was with Parental Advisory warnings on CD jewel cases before iTunes in days of yore. Aside from that controversy the years releases like an iPhone roll out wasn’t anything special; Marvel spearheaded the summer blockbusters as Guardians of the Galaxy exceeded expectations doing boffo box office, along with franchise pap, rote romcoms and animated stuffs for the entire family which accounted for the bulk of the year’s receipts. Franchiseitos was infectious worldwide and that international revenue kept the studios afloat; The Hobbit finally closed out the JRR Tolkien sagas giving birth to first installment YM fare Divergent, while The Hunger Games in a first of a two-part trilogy conclusion a la Twilight’s wrap-up milking it for all it’s worth. Another mindless Transformers noisefest racked up a billion worldwide so Michael Bay can satisfy his invoice with the devil. Tent pole release How To Train Your Dragon 2 scored big again and fanboy comic book stuff X Men, Spidey and Capt. along with the second chapter of the Planet of the Apes franchise made for seven of the top 10 grossing films of the year.

Heavy hitters Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and the anointed Wes Anderson came out swinging  this year and their efforts yielded interesting results. These top shelf directors collectively gave us eye-catching scenes, intense performances and trademark visuals to satisfy cinephiles and audiences alike. One can expect nothing less from this caliber of storyteller. Each fell short of the fences this at bat, though they added interesting entries to their respective filmography.

That being said the prestige offerings at the end of the year  varied, awards and acclaim split critics where there is a consensus as scribes march lockstep when it comes to those things. Some mention of the historical facts in one film in particular garnered backlash and speculation that could have cost the picture coveted nominations. There were a number of movies based on real life events and the accuracy of several were brought into question. I don’t understand what all the brouhaha is all about when just two years ago a major release about Lincoln passing the amendment to end slavery had no Frederick Douglass in it’s cast, at least LBJ is featured in Selma. The British invasion on the acting front defined the nominees this awards season; Eddie, Benedict, Ralph, Tim for the guys, Rosamond, Mia and Felicity ditto when it comes to nods for the ladies. While Sienna is an American wife to Bradley in American Sniper and Mark in Foxcatcher, two of the most highly regarded films this year. With David in Selma the Brits were well represented. And my fav Emily opposite Tom in Doug Liman’s engaging sci-fi romp Edge of Tomorrow. Films up for the big prize by the Academy this time around aren’t bad but certainly not good enough for consideration for film of the year. Each motion picture problematic in their own right, even with things that can be taken away obvious craftsmanship is evident, still none are defining works that advance cinema’s esthetic. Of the eight pictures nominated I question the distinction afforded half the field (not naming any names). I thought when the number of nominees were increased to include works that rightfully deserved the recognition that was fair. In the same vain if there are only three or four worthy, just nominate those few, it only makes sense. To keep praising one note films may be good for business to have that blurb in adverts but it is deceiving to the viewing public. A superb cast do not a film make, just my two cents.


1. A Most Violent Year

Three films to date for writer director JC Chandor and it’s clear that  he prefers for his stories to exist in as real a setting possible. With him there is no hyperbole to the work, no melodrama per say, tension is not expressed with the requisite “gunplay” or action set pieces. The dramatic turns driving the plot consist of heightened narratives and verbal confrontations that inflict as much pain as any bullet. Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks and all the players are to be commended for their fine performances. This corruption power play yarn set in the eighties is a joy for anyone who grew up  on the films of Bob Rafelson and Sidney Lumet like I have. Isaac’s star continues to rise, I dare say he channels Pacino in The Godfather Part II as his character makes alliances and works with his attorney played by Brooks to keep needed parties in the fold. Chastain done up like Michelle Pfeiffer circa Scarface does a spot on pistol toting Lady Macbeth. Much of what is up on the screen has been done before but to Chandor’s credit the execution is flawless. And to the comments of not enough action or the payoff being weak, then check out the latest Keanu Reeves flick that racks up an idiotic body count, this is a movie for grownups.

2. Birdman

Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman bristles and pops like an anti 8 1/2 by Fellini with the froth intensity of  Cassavetes inspired performances by all concerned. The frantic goings on backstage of The Saint James Theater captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki of the cast is reminiscent of a naval crew aboard a submarine. Keaton’s character Riggan can’t seem to distance himself from Birdman the character from the superhero franchise he walked away from and whose voice is constantly in his head. We watch his life implode as he starts to slowly unravel in the midst of the chaos surrounding the previews of his Raymond Carver adaptation he is directing and starring in. The My Favorite Year premise of the movie star cast out from Hollywood seeking redemption on the Broadway stage is a highwire act in one take that induces a euphoria for the viewer. You will delight in Riggan being stymied by Ed Norton’s New York actor unpredictable behavior as they literally duke it out over their creative differences.  Michael Keaton gets the comeback award for an actor in a lead role hands down. He puts it all on the line like a man who has nothing to lose and in doing so all are treated to a career defining performance worthy of everyone involved in the film.

3. The Double

Surreal and satirical, I find it hilarious watching Jesse Eisenberg tormented by his doppelgänger in this story of a nebbish who’s new co-worker, the charmer in the next cubicle is physically his exact double. I commend Eisenberg for being able to realize each individual character so convincingly.  We watch love-struck Simon James resist being taken over by his charismatic, manipulative other self James Simon, in the balance his livelihood at this retro world corporation and Mia Wasikowska the girl they both desire. The ambivalent co-worker Noah Taylor, Wallace Shawn as the demanding boss and the great James Fox round out the cast in this Gilliamesque comic film. Director Richard Ayoade’s odd, stylized offering is a triumph.

4. American Sniper

Chris Kyle is the deadliest sniper in US history. Bradley Cooper fully embodies this four tour Iraq vet nicknamed “Legend” directed by Clint Eastwood. You can see how hard Cooper prepared for  this role by his uncanny resemblance to  Chris Kyle. Entrusted with keeping soldiers alive as they patrol he must make numerous  choices in the midst of harrowing danger. All this comes at a cost as it weighs on his conscience and deeply affects his relationship with his wife. I dare say that Mr. Eastwood gets better with age, Sniper is right up there with his best work. For my money this completes the modern war trilogy along with Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty where war is not easily defined as simply the US combating all the evil out in the world. The glory of battle has a cost.

5. Selma

Ava DuVernay bristling, highly acclaimed picture recalls the Birmingham march and the tribulation by participants and organizers of SNCC and MLK’s people to implore president Johnson to push forward voting rights in that state. The fact that this is the first theatrical release that features Martin Luther King is telling. I delighted in how David Oyelowo convincingly embodied King in mannerisms and speech pattern.  DuVernay shows us King as strategist, diplomat and motivator, politically savvy in staging a march that would elicit compassion and support for their cause. The pious sloganeering minister he is not. The events depicted when marchers attempt to cross Edmund Pettus bridge is harrowing and brutal. Jim Clark’s police force sanctioned  by Governor George Wallace were not tolerant of that sort of behavior in Alabama. The back and forth between Lyndon Johnson played by an excellent Tom Wilkinson with Wallace (Tim Roth) then with King makes for some rousing scenes that comment on society still to this day. Exposition via FBI surveillance is an  excellent narrative device and a way of revealing King’s faults and human side.

Chuck Jones and Bugs

What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones at Museum of Moving Images

Chuck Jones is known by millions young and old, the director and artist who passed away in 2002 made some of the most beloved cartoons of all time. He brought us Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and created a host of other characters, including Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner and many more. Jones drew from fine arts to popular culture in a career spanning three decades he directed over three hundred animated films and was given an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

For anyone who grew up on Jones work this exhibition is a delight; 23 features, original sketches and drawings, storyboards, production backgrounds, animation cells, and a myriad of photographs showing Jones and his collaborators at work creating some of the greatest cartoons ever made. The films include all the Warner Bros. classics as well as the holiday staple Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

6. Inherent Vice

PT Anderson’s latest is right in my wheelhouse; literary, visual, snappy dialogue and a kick ass cast led by failed MC Joaquin Phoenix who since rising from the ashes as his name suggests post doc\spoof\what-the-heck project he’s done some of his best work. Private Dick stoner Larry “Doc” Sportello is taken for a helluva ride when his Ex ol lady Shasta shows up one day asking for help.  The film goes out of its way to show how these characters post sixties come to grips with their lives. There is a lot of wacky things going on in California including kidnapping, brainwashing and blackmail, all having to do with Doc’s case somehow. The back and forth between Bigfoot (Josh Brolin); the clean-cut LA cop who is crooked as that famous street in San Francisco and Doc is downright hilarious. Pynchon realised by Anderson telling a Raymond Chandler noir in an Altman way is a delight.

7. Under The Skin

Scarlett fell to earth and ended up in Glasgow in a black wig driving around in a van picking up horny Scotts in Brian Glazer’s sci-fi, suspense film. Not of this world, luring the male of the species back to her place for god knows what alien experiments with her motorcycle accomplice. The story requires she give the most minimalist performance finding herself seduced by these humans the way Bowie was in Nicolas Roeg’s classic The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Last Days In Viet Nam

This eyewitness account  on the fall of Saigon is jarring when you take into account all the lives that were at stake while the policymakers quibble. The footage of the pull out and the accounts of the scramble to smuggle people out on the remaining helicopters and boats is harrowing. It is not lost on me that this excellent documentary is brought to us by Rory Kennedy.

8. Top Five

Chris Rock has been plagued with the same affliction every edgy stand up from Pryor to Murphy to Wayans and Tucker that graduate to the big screen have. How to translate what drives their stage persona to a PG audience. Until this film I can safely say there has never been a good movie by Rock. Third time’s a charm as a writer, director and star for him. A day in the life of the comedian Andre Allen (known for the character Hammy The Bear). During an interview with a NYTimes reporter played by love interest Rosario Dawson he is forced to confront himself at a point in his career where he’s trying to transition to dramatic roles. His Andre Allen is an amalgamation of every black comic not Cosby. Rock has enlisted a who’s who of comedy (Kevin Hart, Jay Pharaoh, Cedric The Entertainer, JB Smooth, Tracy Morgan, etc.) for a series of downright funny cameos. To have Seinfeld, Whoopi and Sandler in a scene that’s not forced is worth the ticket alone.


Flying Lotus Never Catch Me featuring Kendrick Lamar

Director Hiro Murai

The track taken from the album You’re Dead! is a rhythmic jazz fusion bed of sound that Kendrick  lays down his rhyme on. This meditation on death seems to be a celebration of life. The performance by the children here truly inspiring in the context.


9. Gone Girl, Interstellar

This is a David Fincher film; he knows how to set the creepiness at 10 while the story unfolds. Spoiler alert! There will be uncomfortable, moody, stylish stuff going down. Rosamund Pike giving a performance of Betty Davis proportions, Affleck’s leading man good looks in a Hitchcock universe pegs him as the chief suspect in a thriller that provides breakneck twists and turns. WTF moments that annoy many simply amuse me.

You sit up and take notice whenever Chris Nolan releases a motion picture; it is mandatory viewing. Nolan is a provocateur with millions of dollars and the finest craftsmen and performers at his disposal, engaging the viewer on a level few can achieve or even attempt. He is that dude. Matthew McConaughey does not take a victory lap after his phenomenal run of critically acclaimed films and television work culminating with Dallas Buyers Club, committing to this character when things seem implausible. This Earth on its last legs, only shot to save all mankind, we’re relying on you kid story is dense with scientific jargon and heart.

10. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal has amassed a string of terrific performances in some disturbing films over the last few years. All the trappings of a movie star; The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia (the later so horrendous it may have put him off purely commercial work altogether) he has opted to keep challenging himself as an actor in such films as Brother’s, Source Code, Prisoners, End of Watch and Enemies. As producer along with director Dan Gilroy (of the Gilroy clan: Writer, Director Tony and Editor John Gilroy) they have fashioned an edgy suspenseful story around the cutthroat world of photojournalism in Los Angeles. The predatory nature of the enterprise is creepy enough and once Jake’s Louis Bloom takes it upon himself to get involved in the stories he’s covering to make his footage leadoff caliber stories his actions prove to be criminal and comical in the most macabre way imaginable.

Actor – Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Actress – Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Supporting Actor – Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Breakthrough Performance: Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Andre Benjamin (Jimi: All By My Side)

Director – JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year)
Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo
Adapted Screenplay – Jason Hall (American Sniper)
Director of Photography – Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma)
Visual Effects – Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer (Xmen: Days of Future Past)
Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer (Interstellar)

Artisans: Jennifer Kent (The Babadook [W, D], Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler [W, D]), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel[A], The Invisible Woman[A, D])

Artistic Merit:  The Rover, Boyhood, Belle, The Invisible Woman, Nymphomaniac 1 & 2, No Man’s Land, Dear White People, Enemy, Maps To The Stars, The Babadook, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guilty Pleasure: The Raid 2, Edge of Tomorrow

A Later Assessment: The Theory of Everything, Mister Turner, We Are The Best, Citizen Four, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Ida I look forward to seeing at a later date. These films were not screened  for the posting of this piece, for no particular reason other than the fact “I can’t see every movie.”

Film View 2013

3 Mar


vanity fair march 2014 cover

The Year of Black Film

The industry provided couples with a steady dose of PG-13  franchise pictures to choose from, also a glut of animated features for the entire family, superhero tent pole releases and the zombie genre pic for teens dominate the box office like in years past. The only thing they have in common of course are ridiculously high budgets, effects laden action sequences; rote crowd pleasers with color-by-numbers storylines that don’t require much thought, these are  the types of releases that  keep the studios in business. A steady stream of Black-themed films noticeably permeated the strategic studio scheduled rollout; populating the landscape from early 2013 the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, all the way to year’s end Buppie reunion sequel (10 years in the making) The Best Man Holiday, both pictures doing extremely well at the box office. Along with the excellent underappreciated documentary Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, memorable movies Blue Caprice, Mother of George, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, along with the niche offering Oldboy, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain stand up concert film, the obligatory Tyler Perry effort in 2’s and the gospel tinged musical Black Nativity among them. On display several black storytellers getting a chance to show their craft. For as long as I can recall there has always been one or two mainstream Black films released and then there’s that  filmmaker of color of the moment like a Spike Lee or presently Tyler Perry to serve the market. There has never been this number of Hollywood movies written, produced and directed by African-Americans and others who are a part of the  African diaspora (and trust me I should know). The Village Voice called Mother of  George “A new renaissance moment for  American Black Cinema.” Not to mention the long list of talented actors who dominated the screen, it has been hinted at so I am just going to go ahead and deem this The Year of Black Film.

From the cinematic standouts 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station much deserved critical acclaim, oddball choices as a Spike Lee re-imagining of the cult classic Oldboy, the mere fact that picture came and went quietly speaks to how Lee fared amongst such strong and diverse entries this year. In previous years A Spike Lee Joint (this latest branded the first Spike Lee Film release) would have filled the quota. The Best Man Holiday USA Today headline: Holiday nearly beat Thor as race themed films soar.That got them into a bit of hot water because the film is about relationships not race but look at the perception. And Armond White’s opinion and antics aside many critics and viewers found 12 Years A Slave too violent, “torture porn” to some because it doesn’t have a hook like the revenge fantasy Django Unchained or overly sentimentalized like The Help which is much more palatable to audiences, nor artsy like a Schindler’s List which in my opinion is equally or more violent but is considered a classic.

The state of Black Cinema comes into question, where do films like these fit into today’s society, in the multi million dollar industry? What is the perception of what is represented in that type of film? The ones that resonate typically are family dramas, inner city morality tales, narratives of servitude, romance or broad comedies.  Like the character Cecil Gaines in The Butler was taught, “We got two  faces: ours and the ones that we got to show white folks. We have to make them feel non-threatened.” Meaning to say the negative response to films like Fruitvale and 12 Years and their plaintive narration has proved to be too much for the general movie goer who seeks escapist fare. Akin to the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood will have to get used to the change. The snub of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the highest grossing African-American film this year, praised by critics, virtually shut out  this awards season. That Sundance Festival darling Fruitvale Station did not garner nominations in the Best Picture, Actor and Director categories they warranted. Unusual indeed the fact that The Weinstein Company backed both pictures and the Mandela movie, the history of campaigning by them is notorious. For your consideration indeed. Still Idris Elba with Julia Roberts on his lap on the cover of Vanity Fair is a sight to behold as is Lupita Nyong’o ruling the red carpet this awards season. It was director Steve McQueen who brought one of those self-congratulatory Hollywood Reporter roundtables to a screeching halt a year ago when he pointed out the lack of films by minorities and it is apropo he is the one spearheading this year of Black Film. Actor Michael B. Jordan echos the same sentiments I have, “One film or five? What’s the quota? I feel like this is a year filmmakers of color had stories they wanted to tell and they were successful. But it’s got to be sustained.”

1. 12 Years A Slave

British filmmaker Steve McQueen takes an unapologetic look at every subject he brings to the screen. You can’t not be brutally honest when it comes to the story of Solomon Northrup the freeman abducted and held in bondage during the 1800s in the Antebellum South. A narrative with no hook, no convoluted revenge tale or earnest historical biopic by a big name director. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a taut career defining performance under McQueen’s unrelenting direction, anchoring a beguiling cast that includes heart wrenching  portrayal of Patsy by Lupita Nyong’o. This film does what Kubrick said when he attacks any subject matter; become the definitive take on that subject. You can’t help but be shaken and the impact leaves you unbalanced and reflective once you’ve seen it. A level of storytelling that dwarfs every other entry in the field. It is a comment on what passes for entertainment nowadays and the intelligence of the American public that this film is looked upon as a hard pill to swallow. A point of contention always raised by the offending party when specific instances in history are dramatized. Consensus praise in critics circles for McQueen’s work , I am baffled by the odd savaging (I’m looking at you Armond White) as if there is no artistic merit to speak of. The fact that he has pulled up a seat at the table. Good for him.

2. A Touch Of Sin

Balancing humanity and morality, the modern world smashing up against old world tradition, the impact on Chinese civilization painted with a broad brush awash in blood. The studied performances in this drama show incredible range and illustrate what it takes before one reaches a breaking point (where there is no turning back). When violence erupts it’s a result of X amount of offenses and transgressions before that final thing sets off acts of retribution. Four stories rooted in economic frustrations, each one taken from the headlines in his native China by director and writer Jia Zhag-ke.

3. American Hustle

American Hustle is the best Martin Scorsese Picture that Martin Scorsese has made in a while, the only thing is that it’s made by director David O’Russell. The hottest director of the last three years, he is in a Billy Wilder zone as we speak.  Amy Adams,  Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper especially should thank their lucky stars. The dialogue in his character driven stories bristle and you can see how much fun the actors have saying their lines. The film has the best line in a film this year (no spoiler alert “see the movie!”) Jeremy Renner’s pompadour is worth the price alone.

4. Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s film has heart! Co written with his son Jonás Cuarón, it is a rollercoaster ride of improbable twists and turns, sensory overload in 3D (in a good way) that leaves the viewer euphoric when all is said and done. Sandra Bullock does a yeoman’s job as the medical researcher out of her comfort zone dictates that you have to route for her because you’ve put yourself in her shoes. All the expensive toys, bells and whistles that go into a production like this and George Clooney support the reality of her peril at low orbit. Trying to get back to her spacecraft before she runs out of oxygen and then back to Earth safe. There are several things implausible about the film from a technical standpoint but it does not take away from what’s up on the screen, in awe and terror the special effects never make you spiral too far from the human story.

Behind The Scenes Look

 NYTimes Making A Scene: 11 Performances

Award winning cinematographer Janusz Kiminski (Steven Spielberg’s secret weapon) directs 11 tiny little shorts with eleven of the most celebrated actors on-screen with lines from noted screenwriters. To check out all 11 performances click the link on the screen. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, line by Nicole Holofcener is not to be missed.

5. Fruitvale Station

The fact that the Oscar Grant killing so mirrors the circumstances that led to Trayvon Martin’s death makes Ryan Coogler’s film debut emphasize these recurring incidents that unfortunately leads to an inordinate number of lives loss when minorities encounter law enforcement. What makes it so tragic is the sheer randomness of it all; ordinary lives turned upside down when families have to cope with losing a loved one. Oscar Grant’s spirit lives on in this straight forward retelling of the events filmed on location in the Bay area. Michael B. Jordan depicts Oscar as a conflicted young man trying to get a grasp on his immediate situation, making choices (good and bad) that seem warranted under the  circumstances. It’s not what he says so much it’s what he doesn’t and how his eyes speak volumes when confronted by difficult choices. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that the cast seems like family. You can almost fault the film for being so naturalistic you overlook how well executed it is.

Dante Ferretti MoMA

Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen at  MoMA

The retrospective at MoMA pays homage to the master Production Designer who has defined the look of critical cinema for more than four decades of innovative, distinguished design work, Ferretti has received numerous awards, including three Oscar statuettes, three British BAFTAs, and several Italian David Di Donatello awards. Collaborating with the most noted directors in the annals of film Fellini, Pasolini, Burton, Scorsese and Tamor, I can argue that without him they could not be the visionaries we know. The painstaking detail in the model Gangs of New York set shows what goes into creating the world on-screen that fuels one’s imagination. A true artist, it is evident from the fully rendered charcoal drawings, ink sketches and architectural renderings serving the needs of these one-of-a-kind filmmakers. The exhibit shows his amazing range from designing Concetta World’s rollercoaster to the opera Aida, La Boehme and a stage production of The Fly. The labyrinth of selected Ferretti work on film projected simultaneously will dazzle and make you fall in love with the movies all over again.

6. Free Angela & All Political Prisoners

The iconic activist Angela Davis’ afro is as ubiquitous as that image of Che in a beret. And what she is so famous –infamous– for? The specific events that catapulted her into the public spotlight in the seventies few people know. The writer / director Shola Lynch when I met her at a screening in Harlem called her film a thriller and romance, it is that and so much more. This film gives a depiction of early 1970s through interviews and archival footage; the tone of the country under Nixon and the California of Ronald Reagan permeate the narrative of what led this assistant philosophy professor, Panther supporter, alleged kidnapping conspirator, FBI 10 most wanted fugitive turned counter-culture icon. In the current interviews you can still see the spirit of the young radical some 40 years past.

7. her

Spike Jonze is that type of storyteller like a Wes Anderson, you know when you’re in a Jonze crafted world, it will be sad, quirky, heartfelt and at times scary on some level. Beneficiary of Charlie Kaufman scripted tales of wonder like Michel Gondry at the start of their feature film careers, at this point without the assist it is clear where Charlie leaves off and where Gondry and Spike continue. I want to speak on the performance of Phoenix that could have only manifested itself due to a collaboration with Jonze, venerable and frank, you expect a certain performance from him but this turn not froth with the usual Joaquin malice and it is disarming to watch. Samantha voiced by Scarlett Johansen is so engaging it is possible to see how Theodore Towmbly can have a relationship however implausible with the OSI system on his cell phone. Samantha is HAL 9000 without life and death at stake in the vastness of space, the bigger question that crowds Joaquin Phoenix is love, that titular expression that has no precise definition and how one communicates in this existence.

8. Picasso Baby: Music Video

Jay Z brings Hip-hop to the art world, as his own art installation performing at The Pace Gallery in Chelsea NYC. This one-of-a-kind happening by the mogul, recording artist and trendsetter is captured by director extraordinaire Mark Romaneck.

9. Upstream Color

Without pricey special effects, set pieces or name cast Shane Carruth’s debut sci-fi film Primer overwhelmed viewers. Nine years later he has delivered an equally brilliant, mesmerizing and at time downright confusing opus I found strangely beautiful. Sans dialogue for a majority of the story about a couple who meet by chance and find that it was not coincidence, over time realizing that their lives had been interrupted by similar mysterious incidents and have left both broken and reeling for some sense of normalcy or simply peace. They harken back to the past for comfort and as they fall in love realize they share the same experiences, not knowing where one begins or ends or which is either. The filmmaker draws on broad themes that has a certain poetry, specific instances are dramatized and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. If Carruth’s first film drew comparisons to Kubrick this one seems to tip it’s cap to Malick with a tinge of Cronenberg for good measure, and I don’t know about you but that works for me. Kudos to him for being in such esteemed company.

10. Stoker

The english language first feature of Korean auteur Chan-wook Park does not disappoint with its taunt narrative, stylized visuals and heady cast. Park the purveyor of revenge dramas (his resume speaks for itself) with a script by actor Wentworth Miller  unabashedly tips his hat to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.  Sexual tension and studied lunacy make for a refined thriller that pauses to reflect on the consequences. Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode make the perfect dysfunctional family. 

Actor – Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Actress – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Supporting Actor – Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Supporting Actress – Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is The Warmest Color)

Director – Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Original Screenplay – Eric Warren Singer and David O’Russell  and (American Hustle)
Adapted Screenplay – John Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
Director of Photography – Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmasters)
Visual Effects – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould(Gravity)
Soundtrack – Danny Elfman (American Hustle)

Artisans: Forrest Whitaker (The Butler[A], Fruitvale Station[P]),  Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George[D])

Artistic Merit:  Act of Killing, Blue Caprice, Behind The Candlelabra, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Like Someone In Love, Mother of George,  Mood Indigo, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Room 237, The Grandmasters

Guilty Pleasure: Only God Forgives

A Later Assessment: Computer Chess, Before Midnight, Francis Ha and Rush I could not truthfully comment on. These films were not screened  for the posting of this piece, for no particular reason other than the fact I can’t see every movie.


25 Feb

Cinemascope-logo-3d AvengersFlick 3D, CGI, THX! Boom+Zap+ Pow! = Ka-ching ($) and a banner box office year for Hollywood

Because motion pictures from the very inception were commercial endeavors, to be exhibited on a grand scale in majestic theaters of yore. Challenged whenever technology advances; with the advent of television, color, cable networks and the internet, studios created spectacle with sound, Cinemascope and Vistavision and Real 3D to entice audiences into the local movie house. Having been told that television has surpassed the film industry repeatedly over the past year and with the top shelf writing, directing and amazing performances this TV season from Homeland to Boardwalk Empire who can argue. For a long time now cable television has been running a respectable race with the film industry; show, place, recently neck and neck but finally this year they  has taken the prestige first position with stellar programming on every level. It makes sense with the shift going toward a pay per system; look at what you want as much as you want when you want on the device of your choosing. Trending at year’s end mega distributor Netflix in full studio mode providing more original content.  Amazon and itunes to follow if that business model is successful [I’m just posing the question]? As multiplex screens get smaller and the flat screens in our living rooms reach ridiculous proportions I fear that cell phones, tablets and computers will relegate the movie outing to  that of a day at the museum.

The order of the day in 2012 was sequel-itos and ongoing comic book fare. The Twilight saga mercifully ended [que Twihearts swoon] and The Hunger Games picking up where that franchise left off. A Spiderman reboot for no other reason than to have a Spiderman movie to cash in on [no  disrespect to the talent behind that film]. I questioned why we need another Men In Black installment and behind the wheel of the vintage Aston Martin, Bond is back! And before you can say J.R.R. Tolkien part one of The Hobbit trilogy has hit the screen. Marvel Studios  plotting, planning to establish it’s “universe” with installment films years in the making, the  crescendo being [drum-roll please] The Avenger/ Avengers Assembled [UK], Мстители [Russia],  a billion and a half in sales making it the 11th highest grossing film of all time. Director Josh Weadon getting the big win for all concerned. The brouhaha over another comic book offering released  on X-mas Django Unchained for its violent content, excessive use of the N word and subject matter in general is to be viewed as simple entertainment. And Zero Dark Thirty amid a tempest of controversy, is, in my opinion the film of the year. Les Mis and Argo clean up during awards season proving the taste-makers and industry insiders wrong. And looking at the year’s best and worst lists I find it funny how The Dark Knight Rises made them both [but only I can find that funny]. The following motion pictures are the best of the best by my conservative standards in an odd year for the business creatively.


With Op-eds in major publications like the New York Times, outrage by John McCain and other US Senators along with statements by former CIA director Leon Panetta regarding EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques), director Kathryn Bigelow take on the hunt of the Al-Qaeda mastermind hits pretty close to home. Calling into question the facts of Mark Boal’s provoking powerhouse script. The closing real time SEAL Team assault on Bin Laden’s Pakistani stronghold no jingoistic tent-pole for guaranteed box office. This gripping psychological procedural about a small group with a seemingly impossible task. The job as it takes its toll year after year on Maya the CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain  as frustration and failure does not shake her resolve.


“The screen is a magical medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.” I can’t help but quote Kubrick when speaking  about the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. The level of film making and the commitment of the actors on display can not be denied. Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddy Quell with his hampered posture and feral smile of the emotionally disturbed seaman stateside in the fifties after the war matches Daniel Day Lewis’ turn in There Will Be Blood. PTA’s ensemble of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern drive this story of acceptance and devotion. Hoffman’s charismatic Dodd; the leader of “The Cause” is determined to tame the toxic binge drinking  Freddy and bring him into the fold.  Not wrapped in a big bow that is expected with audiences today, The Master is riveting storytelling on this level does not need to conform to popular opinion when it has this type of impact.


Wow. WOW! Anchored by a performance this side of  Chaplin during his A King of New York  time (I mean that as a compliment). Denis Lavant plays out scenarios from his given “assignments”, assuming another persona one after the next while chauffeured around Paris. Each encounter resulting in sexual, comedic, musical, poignant, absurdest moments. With an other world reality to rival Charlie Kaufman, director Leos Carax who first showed up on my radar with Merde his segment from the film Tokyo! out Gondry’s Gondry this side of David Lynch and offers no real explanation. WTF moments where  people die, break into song, Levant’s Oscar in character is shot or stabbed while doing likewise, resurrected to attend another assignment.  At one point he plays out a death scene that after a pause excuses himself and you realize his grief-stricken niece is too playing the role so convincingly.


Two films of real life injustices that investigate the use and abuse of the people in authority, the stereotyping of women and minorities who dare to go against the system. The Central Park jogger case, the well-known incident to many, involving a group of young black teenagers who’s confessions under duress lead to significant jail time until the actual perpetrator confessed years later. Ken and Sarah Burns documentary leaves no doubt of their innocence. You will hold the NYPD, media and the District Attorney’s office  accountable for the rush to judgement. The lesser known shame inducing accounts of ongoing rape within our military is harrowing in the excellent jarring The Invisible War by documentarian Kirby Dick of This Film Is Not Rated Yet fame. Of the handful of women profiled (20% of female vets sexually assaulted) little or no action taken when reported, this speaks of a military culture that blames the victim and sweeps cases like theses to the side.

Quay Bros

THE BROTHERS QUAY at MoMA- Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets

Full disclosure for these masters of  stop motion animation and puppetry amid  celebrated Decors. Ranging from graphic design work to short films  and two critically acclaimed  features. Marvel at the fantasy worlds strange and scary that are brought to life in such rich detail. Models, dolls and sketches are the foundation that create such distinctive imagery in the hands of Stephen and Timothy Quay. Widely known throughout Europe since taking up residence there in the late seventies this retrospective of University of Arts in Philadelphia alums work seems to have a foot firmly planted in the past.


This Rom-com \ domestic drama hinging on a sporting event and dance competition is a throwback to familiar territory for director David O Russell. His  first two films Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster  are unconventional emotion driven vehicles which provide actors with roles that test their full commitment to the craft. And let me apologize on behalf of David O Russell as opposed to Ernest Hemingway. Is plenty of what goes on up on the screen improbable [of course], somewhat far-fetched [pretty much] and even though the third act plays it safe in this screwball comedy sparks fly with leads Cooper and Lawrence and it simply works. The type of storyteller that O Russell is can find comedy in crack addiction and the Iraq War so a little mental illness and dysfunctional behavior in his hands is a veritable laugh-riot at times and truly touching.


Ang Lee is a storyteller in the purest sense of the word. Faithfully bringing Yanni Martel’s bestseller to the screen, a particular tale that does not fit easily into the template of the successful blockbuster. There are probably three directors working today that could pull it off with such wonderment and conviction (and two of them aren’t Hollywood types [I won’t name names]). I keep thinking this would be perfect for Steven Spielberg circa Empire of the Sun before he became earnest in his choice of subject matter. Lee like that young director knows how to evoke emotion using the toys and making the impossible seem possible. Rooting a big budget production in family values learned by the young protagonist.


One of the greatest American designers of the 20th Century; many of us are unaware of how he impacts our lives on a daily basis.  Having extended the remit of graphic design to include film titles, he went on to transform the genre creating widely recognizable  movie posters and title sequences for films by Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese. Iconic logos and ad campaigns for corporate stalwarts AT&T, Quaker Oats, United Airlines and Minolta to name a few.  Lovingly put together by Jennifer Bass, Bass’s daughter and written by distinguished design historian and personal friend Pat Kirkham, this must have book for any creative person is full of images from the Bass archives, providing an in-depth account of one of the masters in the field. Illustrations galore in this definitive study of the leading designer of post war culture in these pages.


Directed by photographer Steven Klein; part music video, part short film send up of fragrance ads that take themselves too serious. Racy and sinister; portrayed Gulliver sized as several scantily clad men climb over her naked body, the execution is pure Gaga.


A fever dream by writer/director Behn Zeitlin from the perspective of a narrator all of 6 years old; Hushpuppy embodied by Quivenzhane Wallis in a wondrous award nominated debut performance. Being reared in “The Bathtub” a tiny island in the shadow of the levee in abject poverty with her father Wink; played by Dwight Henry as a tormented alcoholic who can himself be quite juvenile. They lead a harsh life with no electricity amid the squalor,  trash and livestock in this hamlet, coping with the day in and day out of simply existing Hushpuppy’s imagination runs wild. The government steps in when nature dictates change and a loss of innocence. This small budget film set in Louisiana is a labor of love made and acted by natives to the region making it feel authentic in tone and language.


Steven Spielberg operates on a higher playing field than most filmmakers; with top-notch editing, casting and camerawork accompanied by a John Williams score, this American institution guarantees a quality product. Spielberg places weight on any topic he chooses to bring to the screen. The topic and title of this film alone begs for a grandiose undertaking and experiences  that befits the name of “The Great Emancipator”. A weary, troubled man determined to sustain a union whose commerce runs on slavery and keep intact a nation in a civil war over that fact. Daniel Day Lewis is up to the task as always, investing in character as few can.  His Lincoln as screenwriter Tony Kushner has him is a savvy and resourceful Commander and Chief that is hellbent on accomplishing the unaccomplishable on his terms; comparisons to the Obama administration when it comes to the legislative process goes without saying. When weighing the strengths and weaknesses of this biopic there is still so much merit. That a Frederick Douglass character or a mention of the man is nowhere to be found is still puzzling considering. At the length of the picture this film still feels like a lot is missing –these omissions more parts to the sum– perhaps the title should have just been The Passing Of The Thirteenth Amendment.


Fifty years as a collected entity, still thriving on their peak output decades removed. The various incarnations of “the worlds greatest band” is documented  in more myth making “in their own words” memoir Crossfire Hurricane crediting the remaining Stones for longevity. Charlie Is My Darling the 1965 document that recounts Stonesmania in stark black and white during a tour of Ireland. One of the many fresh face up and coming bands in Britain at the time, it could have gone either way. Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldman’s master stroke to position them as the antithesis of the beloved Fab Four is played out in the press. You see what makes them more than any other acts striving to get out of the shadow of The Beatles equal to the task. To kick off the release of his “official” solo outing Blunderbuss, the number one man at Third Man Records performed at Webster Hall in New York, recorded live and streamed  for American Express Unstaged series. Mixing in tunes from various side projects and White Stripe favs, fronting his two bands of separate genders; the buzzards and the peacocks proved to be a rousing Rock N Roll show.

* go to wwww.maximsoundorg link to purchase

ACTOR: Denzel Washington (Flight)

ACTRESS: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Robert DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Adams (The Master)

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE: Quivenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Denis Lavant (Holy Motors)

Artisans Salute:  Flight, Skyfall, Rust and Bone, Moonrise Kingdom, The Intouchables, Nameless Gangster,  Argo, God Bless America

DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)

SCREENPLAY: Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty)

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Mihai Malamire Jr. (The Master)

MUSIC SCORE: Steven Van Zandt and various artists (Not Fade Away)

FX:  Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott (Life of Pi)

Guilty Pleasure: Haywire, Cosmopolis, Pirates: Band of Misfits

Special Merit: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Headshot) , Michel Gondry (The We and The I) 

UNDER OATH: Amour [I could not get through this film], No, The Gatekeepers, Anna Karenina, Middle of Nowhere, Deep Blue Sea and The Impostor were not screened if I had to swear in court.


30 Jan

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The marketplace for 2010 was once again dominated by big budget star-driven vehicles, remakes, “comedies” bromantic n romantic (parentheses on comedy), sequels and noisy comic book fare commonplace among the top grossing movies.  Noted was the unfortunate trend of independents being co-opted by the majors continuing from the previous year. The studios production schedule showcased animation, CGI, the ubiquitous Nicholas Cage and 3-D as the carrot to get audiences out to the theater opening weekend. Though The Social Network got Trent Reznor and Academy Award nomination for his score and indirectly  garnered Time magazine’s Person of the Year honors for Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg (I defy anyone to tell me otherwise) and was lauded as a landmark picture for this generation, an abundance of praise heaped on Black Swan and director Darren Aronofsky as well and everyone hunky-dory with British import The King’s Speech come year end, but by far the most anticipated movie of 2010 was Inception. Christopher Nolan’s complex cerebral meta-thriller staring Leonardo DiCaprio as a different type of corporate thief, haunted by his past, who steals inside your dreams in this the most hyped event of the summer. You simply marvel at what is up on the screen. A film that was written up in all the major publications and discussed and debated on numerous programs. This blockbuster that weighed idealism and abstraction  against widely known common perceptions –not to mention an ending who’s meaning was a point of contention once the house lights came up– baffled, infuriated, dazzled and left ticket buyers in awe like no motion picture in recent years.

This list I have compiled consists of films that should be purchased, a fair share are now available at (click on the item you wish to purchase) and require repeated viewing. A selection of motion pictures that posses a tinge of brilliance and should be added to one’s collection. Works that make a statement, extend the craft of narration through the use of digital imagery and film, each one diverse and to be lauded.

SPOILER ALERT: An offering for the true cinephile, as I, not beholden to the proletariat, first week populace / escapist audience goers read no further.

1. 마더 Madeo [Mother] – Hell-bent on proving her somewhat mentally slow son’s innocence in the murder of a local girl, the story takes an absurd turn as the title character played by actress Hye-ja Kim, giving a mammoth performance to savor –a television veteran to Korean audiences — digs deeper and bumbling through her investigation unforeseen elements are revealed in the case. She urges her son who has an inability to recall specific events to remember the facts of what actually happened, but that proves to be a double-edged sword when he remembers things she’s done in the past that may be the reason for his condition at twenty-seven years of age. Incidentally because of the phonetic differences between English and Korean, both “mother” and “murder” are spelled the same when translated to Korean characters. The movie title Madeo plays off that similarity.  Fav director of fanboy Tarantino, Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho’s 4th feature, a masterful suspense thriller, has saddled him with a comparison to Hitchcock. With every twist and swerve to it’s climax extreme measures are taken under the guise of maternal love as she advocates for his release. The mise-en-scène, the entire execution makes this easily the film of the year, hands down.

2. The Social Network – Place a smart script (Aaron Sorkin’s multi nominated manuscript available for download at in the hands of David Fincher and you have a tour de force to be reckoned with. A compelling drama about the creator of Facebook. A compelling drama about the creator of Facebook (I felt like I had to say that twice). Part court case, part whodunit of sorts, it echoes Citizen Kane in some ways, if I could be so bold to even suggest so. Delving into these most exclusive surroundings of class and privilege, Jesse Eisenberg portrays the Facebook founder as a laconic brat with a heavy chip on his shoulder. Consensus praise across the board has Fincher handpicked to ascend the throne.

3. Toy Story 3– In the number three spot, Pixar’s sentimental favorite (and box office champ) steps up to the plate and hits another one out the park to the tune of hundreds of millions grossed worldwide and Mattel, Thinkway Toys, and Lego tie-ins. Tears flow from sidesplitting laughs and unashamed nostalgia in this latest installment in the saga of Woody and Buzz. The standard that all animation is judged.

4. Inception– The follow-up to The Dark Knight, a grand gesture on the heels of Cameron’s Avatar. The trailer was like WTF! Every so often a concept overwhelms the material that supports it; Christopher Nolan plays the game using a different deck than everyone else – he always has– having created something that will go down in the annals of film when all is said and done. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp” to quote a line from his 2006 masterwork The Prestige.

The Art of Tim Burton @ MoMA – The exhibit at the Modern was like Being Tim Burton (The Art of Tim Burton issued by Steeles Publishing is a handsome commemorative), all who attended got to walk behind the curtain of the great Oz and go into the mind of this one-of-a-kind filmmaker. For the nerds that packed the museum for the run of the exhibit Tim simply made it cool to be quirky and a  bit of a geek. The artwork, models (my favorite; a day-glo Oogie Boogie from A Nightmare Before Christmas), costumes (Catwoman’s dominatrix catsuit, various cowls of the Caped Crusader, Edward’s scissorhands, a set of straight razors from the Demon Barber) , character sketches, short films, rarely seen commercials show you the process and the singular vision of this twisted mad-genius.

5.Micmacs à tire-larigot [Micmacs] – Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a distinctive brand that cannot be denied. He imparts a unique sense of wonderment with his satire of rival arms dealers with no morals when it comes to money. This tale about a small band of misfits who wage a campaign against each corporation, pitting one against the other (unbeknownst to those bigwigs) and they find themselves in situations with unforeseeable repercussions of the consequences. Sight gags aplenty. The comedy ensues as we watch them execute their elaborate schemes of revenge, intricately planned out like the diagrams of Phineas J. Whoopie’s 3D blackboard on  Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, choreographed like so many set up dominoes. Lead Dany Boon’s silent movie star flair; that of a Chaplin and Harold Lloyd can affect even a jaded sort like me. Jeunet is poised to capture a wide audience of children-of-all-ages with his next work, I predict.

6. I Love You Phillip Morris / You Don’t Know Jack(HBO) – Both Jim Carrey and Al Pacino give career defining performances in each respective offerings. The veteran and legend are in capable hands and given the opportunity to step out of the norm and explore different facets of their craft. I applaud them both because at this stage they could play it safe and just cash another check. Say what you want about Pacino, but when he’s good he’s damn good and he is here the way he was in Angels In AmericaHome Box Office has kept the standard they set high; Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson are producer and director of the Kevorkian bio-pic. The dramedy of artist, impostor, and multiple prison escapee Steven Jay Russell helmed by directors Glen Ficarra and John Sharist bristles and pops. I can see why the powers that be held this back, it is not your conventional Carrey vehicle. The gay theme of the picture is skillfully handled. The material adapted from the book I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks.

7. Night Catches Us– This debut by writer / director Tanya Hamilton boast strong performances by leads Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie. A snapshot of 1976, centering on the unfulfilled promise of the Black Panther movement, the divide between the cops and the residents of a racially torn community in Philadelphia provides an underlying tension to the story. That anger still intact when Marcus played by Mackie returns home for his father’s funeral. His return drudging up questions of the past that he is forced to come to terms with. Washington’s role as widow of a Panther rumored to be set up by Marcus conveys a reserved strength. When her young daughter wants to know what really happened when her father was killed, her mother has no choice but to confront the issue and her undefined relationship with Marcus who was his best friend. The film addresses loss and regrets as it tries to reconcile with the past. Splendid, well crafted and unconventional storytelling (thank God); this film has heart and genuine moments.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child– Stirring doc of the iconic 80’s artist Basquiat; “rock star of the art world” who burned bright and died way way before his time. The life and times of this graffiti artist / Casanova / con-man turned art world sensation, achieving fame and commercial and critical success while having to combat racism among his peers, his rise is chronicled by director and friend Tamara Davis.

8. Animal Kingdom– This offering from Australia is driven by numerous strong performances by its cast; most notably Ben Mendelsohn, veterans Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, and new comer James Frecheville. Weaver’s Oedipal matriarch to a house of infantilized criminals is a star turn. David Michod wrote and directed this lingering crime drama.

9. Carlos / Un Prophète [A Prophet] – Both films aim high; Olivier Assayas’ sweeping tale of real life terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez ‘Carlos the Jackal’, which Edgar Ramírez embodies so completely, is epic.  Broadcast on The Sundance Channel before being released theatrically, it is a career achievement for it’s director, grand as Coppola’s titular opus (in scope and length) alpha to omega. The other studies the middle distance, a movie that apes the criminal world of the best Scorsese can offer. Tahar Rahim’s in a role akin to Faust gives a riveting performance as the nineteen year old forced to serve a six year sentence. An inmate who rises to power under the tutelage of a brutal crime boss. Brought to the screen by Jacques Audiard, a biting French prison drama not for the squeamish, that is urgently directed and remarkable. Each achieves their goal on certain levels; on their inventiveness, talents and attempt to be great, kudos.

I’m Here / Runaway / We Were Once A Fairytale – Short films by Spike Jonze and musician Kanye West are ambitious offerings;  Jonze’s a promotion for Absolut Vodka that did the festival circuit has a sad sweetness and West’s a companion piece to his universally acclaimed album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is revealing. Each gives insight into both artists’ dreams and fantasies, as does their collaboration We Were Once A Fairytale starring West, a comment on his much informed public persona which Jonze directed and is available on iTunes.

10.Valhalla Rising –This five part allegory about a mute warrior during the Crusades is stoic and visually breathtaking. A serene and brutal offering by Danish film director, screenwriter and producer Nicolas Winding Refn, the latest film from the mind behind the Pusher series and Bronson stars the charismatic Mads Mikkelsen as One Eye.

Not discounting performers that have you investing in the dilemma and zeal of characters rising above stated narrative. (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, Biutiful, Rabbit Hole)

Actor – Edgar Ramírez (Carlos) and Al Pacino (You Don’t Know Jack)

Actress – Hye-ja Kim (Mother)

Supporting Actor – Christian Bale (The Fighter)

 Supporting Actress – Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

Breakthrough Performance – Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)

And the craftsmanship of artisans that are gifted, adroit practitioners of the medium. (True Grit, Black Swan, I Am Love, The Ghost Writer, Never Let Me Go)

Director – David Fincher(The Social Network)

Screenplay – Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

Cinematography- Tetsuo Nagata A.F.C. (Micmacs)

Music for a Motion Picture – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network)

Visual Effects –Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips (Alice in Wonderland)

Special Artistic Merit – Tanya Hamilton (Night Catches Us) and Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go)
FULL DISCLOSURE: the films I haven’t seen (127 Hours, Dogtooth, Inside Job, Get Low, The Kids Are Alright, Somewhere, Vincere, Enter The  Void), I do not discount their merits, previews and promotional material did not deem compelling enough to warrant a screening.  Another Year the Mike Leigh film notwithstanding. Strictly my opinion but now that I’ve put it on my blog it is fact.