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Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Most Marvel-y Marvel Movie Yet? (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 4, 2015 | Add Comments

Avengers: Age of UltronFilled with clever comedic character moments, noisy and never-ending battle sequences, and clues to where the franchise is headed next, Avengers: Age of Ultron may just be the most Marvel-y Marvel movie yet. On paper, that makes the movie sound sort of unbearable. (One of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The First Avenger, felt little like one). Ultimately, that is exactly what makes the movie so entertaining.

Director Joss Whedon, totally exhausted by the all the expectations and pressure and guidelines thrust upon him, makes no attempt to challenge our notions about the superhero genre. Or to comment on the complexities of modern America. Or even to inject some fresh new ideas into the Marvel Universe. All he wants to do is make a solid, sturdy, slam-bang, good ol’ fashioned action movie. Assuming that was his only intention, he’s succeeded. And while I still left wanting more, and wondering what more is left for a director to do with Marvel, this is undeniably fun stuff.

Avengers: Age of UltronWhedon’s script for the movie is centered around four or five enormous action set-pieces, all of which are loud, long, and explosive. Everything else in the movie (the comical team banter, an unexpected romantic plot-line, subtly revealing flashbacks) is structured around those action scenes. This is a classic action movie structure, and the actual plot is a classic doomsday adventure. The movie kicks into gear when Tony Stark/Iron Man and Bruce Banner/Hulk try to end all violence with an AI peace program, though they keep the plan a secret from the rest of the team. Sooner than later, things go terribly wrong and an evil robot named Ultron is stumbling around and discussing his plans for world domination. So, the Avengers are forced back into action in order to stop the end of the universe.

Hold on, isn’t that basically the plot of the first Avengers? And couldn’t that same basic storyline (team of superheroes overcome differences to save the galaxy) apply to Guardians of the Galaxy? The answer is yes, and yes. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything startling or new here. Not that Whedon doesn’t really seem to care. He also doesn’t bother investing any of the action scenes with any clever choreography or calming coherence (the scenes with a potential “wow factor”, like a Hulkbuster suit donned by Iron Man, were revealed in the trailers).

Avengers: Age of UltronWhat does Whedon care about? The characters. It’s always been the little moments that stand out in these films, and the best sequences in Age of Ultron are the quieter ones. Hawkeye, Hulk, and Black Widow were shoved to the sidelines in the first Avengers movie, so it’s both fitting and gratifying that they’re given starring roles this time around. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johanson are all more confident in their roles, and Whedon has given them all fine storylines (I can’t say anything more, for fear of spoilers). Ultron (voiced with a touch of wit by James Spader) isn’t a great villain, though he’s not a bad one either. But Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, two damaged twins with great power, are fine new additions to the series.

Unfortunately, that means Iron Man, Captain America, and Thora are all given less to do. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans (as Thor and Cap) have never been charismatic scene-stealers, so it’s not exactly a shock that their characters’ earnest cluelessness fades into the backround. On the other hand, Robert Downey Jr. has always been the best thing about Marvel movies; surrounded by CGI blurs, he always brings knowing and needed personality. His performance here is easily his most mailed-in, least invested yet (which is not to say he doesn’t get some fine one-liners). You can’t really blame him, though. Seven years ago, the first Iron Man movie gave him a shot at rebooting his career. There’s no doubt he’s thankful for the superstardom these films have afforded him, but he seems a little worn down by it.

What do you I have to say about the movie’s finale? It ends with thirty minutes of things going boom, as every Marvel movie does, and it left me a bit exhausted. Will a Marvel movie ever end another way?

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron has a lot going on in it, more so than any of it’s predecessors. It does not, however, have much to say. Whedon has made a highly efficient, largely effective action spectacle…and nothing more. The resulting movie is a good summer popcorn flick, and that’s a compliment. But the strength of a Marvel film can often be measured by whether or not, walking out of the theater, you are left excited for more. Am I? Not particularly.

Highlights of TIFF 2015 (Flack’s Report)

Posted on | May 2, 2015 | Add Comments

Operation ArcticTIFF Kids, a Toronto kid’s film festival (one of the world’s largest), is a twelve day spectacular of contemporary children’s cinema, collected from all around the world. Flick and Flack attended for their fourth time this year and managed to see some notable films. Here, Flack writes about three standout movies from his weekend in Canada.

Operation Arctic has one unbelievable, sort of ridiculous, insanely intruiging premise: a teen girl and her two younger twin siblings hide away on a helicopter in an attempt to locate their missing father, then end up stuck in Arctic Norway. With no one else around and a limited supply of canned foods to live off of, the dire situation only gets worse as polar-bear attacks and and harsh weather dampen the hopes of the three siblings. Go along with the over-the-top story of the film and you’ll be delighted by a well-executed, old-fashioned adventure yarn. The frigidly beautiful cinematography and some gripping bear battles are highlights.

Top SpinMany of the best documentaries focus on topics that seem uninteresting and odd, but manage to turn them into riveting and informative films. Top Spin does just that. The doc follows three teen table-tennis players as they compete for a spot at the Olympics, balance school with sports, and discuss the joy and pain of competitive sports. It has all the boiling suspense and riveting action of a great sports movie, but with thoughtful, poignant interviews to add some depth.

LabyrinthusBelgian sci-fi adventure Labyrinthus has it’s flaws, but manages to surprise more often than one would expect of a big-budget family film. The adventure begins when Frikke, an average teen, picks up a mysterious camera left behind by a masked biker. He soon realizes the object holds the keys to a dangerous but compelling video game, inside of which a young girl is trapped. Frikke is the only one capable of saving the girl, and it’s up to him to locate and stop the creator of the game. Labyrinthus is a bit like a digital-age update of Jumanji, though it’s darker in tone than that film. The multi-stranded plot does have some weak stretches, and most attempts at humor fall flat, but this is still a refreshingly imaginative adventure.

Seymour: An Introduction is an Illuminating, Intimate Piano Documentary (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 16, 2015 | 1 Comment

Seymour: An Introduction

Some documentaries can be sloppily filmed, perhaps slightly unclear, or maybe even poorly constructed and still win me over because of their captivating subjects. But the best docs accompany their fascinating stories with filmmaking savvy, a unique point of view, and possibly an inventive spin on the genre.

Seymour: An Introduction, which opened in limited release last week, falls somewhere in between those two categories. It’s an intimate, ponderous, lovely examination of music, work, and life, directed with surprising and attentive subtlety by actor Ethan Hawke. There’s not a lot of cinematic flair here, but that’s a good thing. Hawke is rarely on screen and, instead of turning the movie into a movie-star showcase, he lets his subject do the talking.

Several years ago, he was at a dinner party when he found himself seated next to Seymour Bernstein, a piano virtuoso who stopped performing live at age 50 to teach students his instrument. Impressed by his kind, conversational dining companion, Hawke confided a new fear of stage fright to Bernstein, who had experienced similar feelings. Eventually, the actor realized this guy would make for a fine film subject.

And he does. Warm and slyly funny, endlessly talkative and erudite, Seymour is exactly the kind of person you would want to listen to for 90 minutes. Hawke paints this portrait of his subject by weaving together several sequences: a lunch discussion between Bernstein and a former student/New York Times writer; footage of piano lessons; and interviews in the man’s home (he’s lived in the same NYC apartment, alone, for fifty years).

This simple, straightforward approach allows lots of time for Seymour to discuss his opinions on classical composers, concert tours, the beauty of nervousness, the intense correlation between an instrument and it’s player, and the primal necessity of music.

Most directors would try to fill us in on every aspect of Bernstein’s life, but Hawke avoids such biographical predictability (likely either because of his politeness or Bernstein’s privacy) in favor of an informative approach that feels more riveting than introductory. At times, Seymour: An Introduction has the charming comfort of a big, warm hug. It’s not all absorbing entertainment; Bernstein tears up discussing his experiences in the Korean War, and chances are you’ll do the same. The movie moves covers a lot of history and skips between several sequences, but it steadily holds onto a relaxed, low-key, but provocative tone. As soon as you’ve seen the movie, you’ll want to mull over it’s ideas with friends and family. And then? You’ll be itching to start practicing an instrument.

Seymour: An Introduction

So, that’s my take on the film, which I got the chance to see at NYC’s IFC Center. Afterwards, the audience was treated to a Q&A with Hawke and Bernstein no less insightful and delightful than the film. Hawke discussed his reasons for making the film, while Bernstein told sometimes hilarious, sometimes illuminating stories that were left on the cutting room floor. I walked away with a smile on my face and a head full of new ideas.

Catch Me If You Can is Top-Notch Spielberg: Breezy, Delightful, and Melancholy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 2, 2015 | Add Comments

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Breezy and light but undercut with a stinging melancholy, Catch Me If You Can (2002; available on iTunes) finds Steven Spielberg straddling between drama and comedy, and creating a classy, perfectly constructed based-on-a-true-story 60’s caper. It’s seems like an odd choice for Spielberg to direct at this point in his career; it is neither an “Important” historical drama that reasserts his brilliance nor a fantastical adventure that again proves his powers as an entertainer. Doesn’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a more delightful, thoughtfully made late-career film from one of our great working directors.

Adapted from the eponymous non-fiction memoir by the film’s subject, Frank Abegnale Jr., the film begins with a clever game-show scene that gives us our first glimpse of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a few scenes from 1969, which give us a look ahead, the film skips back to 1963. Frank is a teenager living happily with his loving parents Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) until money problems threaten their middle-class bliss. The family moves out of their spacious home and into a smaller apartment, and then Paula cheats on her husband. The two divorce and Frank, moody, confused, and horrified, runs away from home.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)There are two early scenes in the film that hint at where Frank’s life is heading. In the first, his father gives him a cheque book as a birthday gift and tells him he can have anything he wants. Later, Frank is bullied at his new school. Then he walks into French class and convinces everyone he’s a substitute teacher, until his parents are notified. Yet these are mere glimpses of what Frank is capable of. After running away from home, he pretends to be an airplane pilot and gets a job at Pan-Am. Then he forges cheques listing the airline company’s name, and gets away with stealing millions of dollars. And then he gets a job as a doctor, saying he went to medical school. And then he gets a job as a lawyer saying he went to law school. The entire film has this absurd, but absurdly entertaining, “And then he did this” flow, partly thanks to the relaxed and entirely cohesive script by Jeff Nathanson. Within the space of a half-hour of screen time, we see him go from innocent, contented boy to a bittered son of separated parents to man of luxury, riches, and happiness. But is he really happy? Frank asks out a stewardess, spends a night with a prostitute, and occasionally meets up with his dad, but he never settles anywhere or with anyone. Things won’t stay like this forever, of course, and it’s not long before a humorless FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is on Frank’s trail.

Spielberg is on peak form here, swiftly switching gears from ridiculous rich-kid comedy to equally ridiculous cat-and-mouse caper comedy. He clearly relishes the chance to do a 60’s period film and the attention to detail (the Aston Martin Frank cruises around in, the Pan-Am clothing, the spacious suburban houses) is just right. So are all of the actors, especially DiCaprio. As Frank, he’s slick and crafty, a skilled smooth talker. But DiCaprio infuses the role with undertones of guilt, sorrow, and loneliness that make us feel sympathy with him to the end. Hanks has surprisingly little screen time, but makes the most of it by taking the role of goofy government agent and going a little deeper. Walken is also great as the well-meaning but delusional father, and Amy Adams has a fine supporting part as an innocent love interest.

There’s top-notch work all around here, from cinematographer Januz Kaminski, who deftly switches from sunny and optimistic to cool and dark, from John Williams and his suspense-bulding score, and from legendary opening-credits designer Saul Bass, who has a great title sequence here.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Still, it’s Spielberg’s balancing of tones that keeps the whole thing marvelously afloat. There are moments of sorrow and depression and we do get our heartstrings sufficiently pulled. But Spielberg also knows not to dwell on the darker aspects of the story for too long. Instead, he keeps the movie flying smoothly and steadily, like one of the Pan-Am planes Frank pilots. Catch Me If You Can may appear to be a “minor” work by a great director, yet it entertains us (without dinosaurs!), moves us (without Nazis!), and holds us in utter fascination for it’s entire two-and-a-half hour length, not unlike Frank held bankers, pilots, doctors, and the government in awe.

 

A Safe, Not Totally Awesome Oscars Telecast Awoken by Surprise Wins (Flack’s Report)

Posted on | February 24, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015

Despite plenty of surprise Oscar winners, Neil Patrick Harris’ 87th Annual Academy Awards show often felt safe, sometimes sedate, and comfortable with being fine but forgettable. Sure, there were the inevitable offensive jokes (“American Sniper with Bradley Cooper. The most prolific sniper in history, with over 160 confirmed kills. Or, as Harvey Weinstein calls it, a slow morning.”) But for most of the show Harris settled for innocuous predictability.

That’s not, however, entirely a bad thing. The opening number, “Moving Pictures”, was an ode to the escapist and inspiring power of movies, with costumed extras, clips, and a cameo from Anna Kendrick. It was rather delightful and, after so much controversy, refreshingly uplifting. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of thing (host appears inserted in movie scenes and tells us how great movies are) performed at countless other Oscar shows. And though this year’s crop of nominees would’ve provided plenty of joke material, Harris opted to honor classic films we’ve seen countless times. Where were the Boyhood jokes? The pre-recorded video where Neil Patrick Harris grows up over twelve years? Where he marches along side MLK? Fights alongside Bradley Cooper? Luckily, a crotchety Jack Black interrupted Harris midway through with a hilarious song about Hollywood’s superhero problem.

On the whole, it was an enjoyable opening number. But almost immediately, it became apparent the show had major script problems. Around half of Harris’ jokes fell flat. The back-and-forth quipping between presenters was often awkward and stiff (Kendrick and Kevin Hart seemed to barely acknowledge each other). Worst of all was a prolonged briefcase gag that didn’t reveal it’s unfunny punchline until the last minutes of the show. Why did Harris’ “predictions” turn out to be a recap of the show’s big moments? My guess is the producers wanted to catch up viewers who tuned in at the end on everything that already happened (isn’t that what Twitter is for?).

Oscars 2015To the producers’ credit, there were some truly winning moments. Lady Gaga toned down her antics but wowed with her astonishing voice during a 50th anniversary medley of The Sound of the Music, and Julie Andrews came out to congratulate her. Otherterrific musical performances included Tim McGraw’s tearjerking rendition of Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and Adam Levine’s flawless falsetto on Begin Again‘s “Lost Stars”. (Jennifer Hudson’s sorta bland In Memoriam number and Tegan and Sara’s candy-colored “Everything Is Awesome” spectacle were less awesome). The night’s high point came, as I had expected, when John Legend and Common performed their Selma song “Glory”. With Legend’s impeccable voice, Common’s rhythmic rapping, a soulful chorus, and lyrics that mention Ferguson, it was a poignant and undeniably affecting highpoint.

Neil Patrick Harris’ highpoint, meanwhile, came around halfway through the show. In a live video clip, Harris was shown backstage, struggling with a bathrobe caught in the door. Reluctantly, he walked away, dropping the bathrobe and clad only in underwear. Within seconds, clued-in cinephiles got the reference: Michael Keaton’s near-naked Times Square walk in Birdman. It was totally hilarious, and it only got better when Harris pushed the face of an anxious reporter away and then told a drumming Miles Teller “Not my tempo”. This type of movie in-joke comedy was sorely missing from much of the rest of the broadcast, but triumphed here.

As for the actual awards, I didn’t totally triumph with my predictions; I correctly forecasted 15 out of 24 categories. For the first ten or so, I guessed every one right (surprisingly, I did best in the technical categories and even correctly guessed the Best Documentary Short category). Though many of the big categories turned out different than I’d expected, in many ways, I wasn’t surprised. I predicted voters would award Original Screenplay to Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but they instead opted for Birdman (great dialogue, memorable characters). And I was wrong in thinking Whiplash‘s examinations of ambition and perfection would garner it the Adapted Screenplay prize; the award went to the tightly structured The Imitation Game. J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore, respectively, all seemed to have won the Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Actress awards before the show began, and they all collected their trophies. Best Actor, meanwhile, didn’t go to Birdman‘s Michael Keaton (I thought that would be a sentimental career-achievement sign of respect) but to The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne, who physically transformed himself for the role of ALS-suffering scientist Stephen Hawking.

Oscars 2015And then there were the two biggies: Best Director and Best Picture. I predicted Boyhood would win both, or perhaps Birdman would nab one of the two. Wrong. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling dramedy walked away with both, again proving the Academy’s love for showbusiness stories (Shakespeare in Love, ChicagoThe Artist, Argo etc.). As Oscar writer Mark Harris mentioned in an article, the Academy undoubtedly connected to the film’s story of a faded blockbuster star trying to prove his artistic integrity with a daring new project Hey, we can do more than superheroes, was the message conveyed by the win.

Boyhood‘s story (kid grows up) seems more universally relatable, since everyone was once a kid growing up and not everyone was once a very unstable movie star. But the Academy chose to go with a story personal to them. Boyhood may have been too slow, uneventful, artsy, maybe too good for the Oscars. Make no mistake, I thought Birdman was brilliant, but it just wasn’t Boyhood. No movie is, and that’s not only because of the filming-for-12-years thing. It’s the kind of film you feel genuinely lucky to have seen and truly grateful that someone thought to make it. Ultimately, Linklater’s movie walked home with a single Oscar (for Arquette). The one-time frontrunner lost a few key prizes and was left with as many prizes as…How to Train Your Dragon 2!? Birdman‘s final tally was a respectable four wins, tying with The Grand Budapest Hotel (which swept many technical categories) for the most. Whiplash also was next, with three wins; Boyhood and the other four Best Picture nominees each won a single award.

Finally, I want to discuss up the Academy’s struggle with race, which has been a topic of discussion since Selma was largely shut out of the nominations. How did the show handle it? Much the way the largely white SNL did, during their 40th anniversary special: a few mildly awkward, pretty funny jokes and then quickly sidestep the issue.  “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest…I mean brightest” Harris joked during his opening line. Pretty daring first joke, sure, but that doesn’t solve any diversity issues among the nominees. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (herself an African-American woman) would’ve been wise to discuss the problem during her speech. She could’ve talked about how the problem exists not just in the Academy, but in the actors Hollywood casts. David Oyelowo wasn’t nominated and that was unfortunate, but not many other non-white actors were major contenders. That said, many Oscar winners chose to address important issues during their acceptance speeches. Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore talked about attempting suiccide at 16, then encouraged viewers to “stay weird”. During his Best Picture speech, Iñárritu asked for better treatment of Mexican immigrants in America. And Patricia Arquette called out unequal pay among men and women (Meryl Streep liked that).

Overall, this was a pretty average Oscar telecast. It wasn’t a straight-up disaster in the vein of Hathway/Franco or McFarlane. At the same time, it’ll be forgotten quicker than both those shows. Like Ellen DeGenres, Harris appealed to all demographics and pleased everyone…but ended up wowing nobody. And did I mention Boyhood should’ve won? Anyway, this particularly insane awards season is over…which means it’s time to through out some 2016 predictions. Here are a few: The Hateful Eight. The Revenant. Steve Jobs. Joy. Miles Ahead. The End of the Tour. Spielberg’s latest. And…Episode VII?

Flack’s Last-Minute Best Picture Oscar Analysis

Posted on | February 22, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015If you’ve read anything about the Oscars, you’ve heard about the neck-in-neck Best Picture race between Boyhood and Birdman, one of the closest in years. Since its summer release, Richard Linklater’s 12-year coming of age drama Boyhood has been racking up critics raves, which were followed by critics awards and then big wins from the Golden Globes and BAFTAS. Those two ceremonies, however, don’t have a lot of overlap in their voter-body with the Oscars. Meanwhile, the Producer’s Guild, Director’s Guild, and Screen Actor’s Guild share many of the same members with the Academy, and in theory are more helpful tell-tale signs. So when Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling backstage dramedy Birdman swept all three ceremonies, the tides began to turn.

For months, Boyhood seemed like the little movie that could go all the way from a small indie release to the Oscar podium. But Birdman, a more conventionally showy Oscar favorite, has gained enough traction to make a win seem unsurprising. Besides, it’s a movie commenting on movies, which the Academy clearly loves (think The Artist and Argo).

So…why am I predicting Boyhood for the big win? The film has a timely yet timeless quality that feels perfect for a Best Picture winner; it also encapsulates 12 years of culture into one moving film. And, in a year that has seen the Academy nominate a large number of independent films, it seems like the right time for an indie champion. I’m also predicting Richard Linklater for Best Director. Sure, Iñárritu’s direction is more in-your-face dazzling (one-take camerawork, drum soundtrack, breathless dialogue) but Linklater’s long-term hard-work will likely be rewarded. All that said, I’m anything but sure about my picks. Birdman certainly could take Best Picture, or Iñárritu could win Director and split the big two with Boyhood (assuming it wins Best Picture).

Personally, I’m rooting for (and predicting) Boyhood for both awards…and, in such a close race, perhaps we should listen to our hearts.

Flack’s 2015 Oscar Speech

Posted on | February 22, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015Confused by all the excitement and outrage surrounding this year’s Oscars? Do your homework before the show today, and read my Oscar essay about SelmaAmerican SniperBoyhood, and more. Predictions are included at the end. Here’s the speech/essay:

The awards season hoopla that surrounds the Oscars repeats itself each and every year and, to some extent, with little difference. Months of movie-geek forecasting, last-minute controversy, and other, lesser awards shows lead up to the big night, the Super Bowl of Hollywood, the Oscars. Actually, the show shares a few traits with that football spectacle, though it takes place not at a crowded fields and a packed arena but a Hollywood auditorium and at a podium. Yet like the Super Bowl, the Oscars are the outcome of tireless hype, careful marketing, and a whole lot of preparation; likewise, they inspire obsessively geeky debating, cheers of joy, some unsullied loser faces, and post-event speculation. And then, after a couple of weeks, the dust cloud of glitz and glamour fades away. Remaining hints of Oscar excitement are buried in awards blogs where anxious film-nerds are already predicting next year’s winners. By the time fall comes around, the film world is already revving its engine up again, preparing for another tough battle for gold.

This year’s “battle for gold” has been a little different, and I’m not just saying that to get your attention. Larger debates about race and politics have been at play, lending the event an unexpected touch of “importance”. It’s common for a few films to have their awards standings lightly, slightly tarnished by historical inaccuracy or a celebrity dispute or something else no one could’ve expected. But this year, two films, Selma and American Sniper, didn’t just have to politely sidestep a minor dispute; they had to face industry-wide discord head-on.

Selma, once considered a possible front-runner, was only nominated for two awards: Best Picture and Best Song. Why? The Selma filmmakers opted only to send screeners to the Academy, not other award-show voters, which meant the film was largely shut out of vital pre-Oscar award-show signifiers. There was also an inordinate amount of press lathered on the LBJ-Civil Rights kerfuffle, which involved historians chastizing the film for it’s less-than-squeaky-clean depiction of our 36th President . Both those factors certainly had something to do with the less-than-expected show of love for the film. But it’s hard not to look at the Academy-voting demographic (94% white, 76% male, average age of 63) and think some outmoded views on gender and race may have gotten in the way of nominations for lead actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay (who would’ve been the first black woman to get a Best Director nomination).

Clint Eastwood’s Iraq-war thriller American Sniper, another late entry into the race, got six nominations (Best Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Editing and Mixing). How did Sniper, which received a fair share of tepid reviews, manage to get so much attention, while Selma, easily one of the best-reviewed films of the year, got sidelined? For one thing, critics don’t vote for Oscars. That demographic I previously mentioned (white, male, and old) may be the type of group that could get behind a film critic David Edelstein called a “Republican platform movie”, despite criticisms of glorified combat sequences and disparaging depictions of the Iraqi people. The Academy also loves a populist favorite and, perhaps perplexingly, Sniper may fill that spot: despite an R rating, the film has made 250 million dollars. Selma, meanwhile, has made 31 million, a third of what Sniper made in it’s first weekend.

So what do all these statistics mean? Are Oscar voters really racists who just love a good, old-fashioned war movie? No (actually, most of them are probably very nice people). But things need to change. I haven’t seen Sniper, but I did love Selma, a terrific film, made by a thoughtful director and starring one incredible actor. Aside from diversity, it was a great movie, and I’m not alone in wishing it had gotten more nominations. So, how will things change? On the bright side, this year’s controversy (which sparked a hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite) may influence voters to diversify future nominees. Yet the problem really lies in the heart of Hollywood. Many reporters have pointed out that all twenty acting nominees this year are white. A disheartening statistic, sure, but even if, say, David Oyelowo had gotten nominated there would still be more white nominees than those of other ethnicities because Hollywood is a largely white industry.

Now let’s look up on the upside. Take a good, hard look at the nominees for Best Picture. Yes, Oscar-baiting Weinstein-approved period pieces The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are on the list. But you’ll also notice the Oscars really love independent movies, the kind that might not have gotten nominated twenty years ago. We can partly thank the new Best Picture rules. In 2010, ten, not five, films were allowed nominations and in 2012, the limit changed again: five to ten is the magic number(s?). I for one, like those rules (though ten would make more sense). But while many predicted the change would allow more big-budget crowd-pleasers to sneak in, the opposite has happened. At the 2010 show, a Hollywood epic (Avatar) lost to a small-scale war-drama (The Hurt Locker). While the Academy next chose a period-piece (The King’s Speech) over a zeitgeist-capturing tech-tale (The Social Network), they’ve since given the big prize to a silent French comedy (The Artist), a quirky thriller (Argo), and a slavery epic (12 Years a Slave), while nominating a diverse range of films (The Tree of Life, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Her, to name the most esoteric).

This year continues that trend, with four of the eight Best Picture nominees being either independent or artsy or both. Those four films are Wes Anderson’s decades-spanning comic-caper The Grand Budapest Hotel, 30-year old Damien Chazelle’s drumming-drama Whiplash, Alejandro Iñáritu’s sorta-one-take showbiz dramedy Birdman, and Richard Linklater’s 12-year coming-of-age epic Boyhood. While acknowledging and bemoaning the Oscar’s lack of diversity, the Academy deserves at least a little credit for recognizing films both big and small. Some writers have complained that 2014 was a weaker-than-usual year for movies, but I was exhilarated, moved, surprised, and wowed by many films, particularly Whiplash, Selma, Birdman, The Wind Rises, We Are the Best!, Ida, Life Itself, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and two big-budget surprises, The LEGO Movie and Edge of Tomorrow. My favorite, however, is Boyhood, a film that evoked feelings of poignancy, honesty, beauty, and the thrill of cinema in ways I’ve never experienced at another movie. For my money, it’s going to walk away with Best Picture (though look, up in the sky and watch out for Birdman) and the 12-years-in-the-making win will be well-deserved.

Predictions

Best Picture:
Boyhood

Best Director:
Richard Linklater

Best Actor:
Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Best Actress:
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Supporting Actor:
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress:
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Whiplash

Best Original Screenplay:
Birdman

Best Animated Feature:
How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Foreign Language Film:
Ida

Best Documentary Feature:
Citizenfour

PCFF 2015 Day 6: Superb Shorts and Journeys to School

Posted on | February 21, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF 2015 Day 3After week-day library screenings of past-festival favorites, the PCFF returned to Thayer Street for the first part of it’s weekend finale. Though there weren’t films at the Avon or Metcalf venues, Wheeler’s Gilder Center screened five features and one shorts collection. The Brown Granoff Center, meanwhile, had it’s PCFF debut, showing festival films for the first time.

I started my day at Wheeler, with the PCFF-collected Elementary School-Vol. 2 shorts group. Presenting audiences with the kind of big-screen experiences (foreign films, documentaries etc.) they don’t normally get to see is one of the festival’s strengths, and short films certainly make for unique viewing. Seeing a collection of short films is always a thrill because, unlike with features, you never know exactly what you’ll find. A mix of mystery, anticipation, excitement, and possibility awaits. So does the inevitable fact that you’re bound to love some of the shorts, but not all of them. In this group, Only Gilt could’ve used a more satisfying ending. I’ve Just Had a Dream suffered from a repetitive structure and a slightly stereotypical story. Overall, though, it was a diverse and captivating selection. Chikara- The Sumo Wrestler’s Son is an almost transporting documentary that gives us a look into the gritty, grimy world of kids sumo wrestling. It’s observant and informative, even a little heartbreaking, and an absorbing look at a culture vastly different than ours. The animated Wind was lighter and funnier, but no less of an achievement. The four-minute film is a wonderfully crafted, clever, and darkly comic delight. Speaking of delights, The Revenge of Scooter was a charming piece of homemade sci-fi, with cardboard effects and tongue-in-cheek dialogue to match.

PCFF 2015 Day 3Following a hearty banh-mi sandwich from the Lotus Pepper food truck, I next visited the Granoff for the documentary On the Way to School. Directed by Pascal Plisson, the film follows four groups of children from Kenya, Patagonia, Morocco and India, as they make their perilous, tiresome, and lengthy trips to school. The film unquestionably achieves it’s central goal; I left the film with a newfound appreciation for my life and my daily journey to school (a five-minute car ride). But the doc sometimes feels more educational (and episodically structured) than one would like, while a little long in parts.

PCFF 2015 Day 3Though I can (and have) managed seeing five festival films in a day, I ended fairly early with the Party Mix shorts, curated by the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Apart from two weak shorts, it was a top-notch compilation. Interestingly, a theme emerged from the group: fantastical fables that mixed bed-time story enchantment with either wit or animated wonder. The Centipede and the Toad, The Princess, the Prince and the Greed-Eyed Dragon, and Tome of the Unknown all fit this description. Overall standouts included Portlandia: Rat’s Book, from the creators of the eponymous hipster-satire show, the brief but hilarious Carpark, and Rabbit and Deer, which used different animation techniques to alter perceptions of what an animated short can do. Oscar-nominated The Dam Keeper, with it’s sludgy pastel colors and bullying allegory story, was certainly the most poignant. 

And, unfortunately, tommorrow the fest will come to a poignant end. But that end is not yet here! Check back in a day or two for our final festival report.

PCFF 2015 Day 3: A Summer Adventure, An Animated Marvel, and a Sibling Road-Trip

Posted on | February 14, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF 2015Thursday and Friday’s PCFF screenings certainly whet the appetites of movie-lovers ready for another great fest. But the feast really began on Saturday, with eight movies spread across two venues. In describing the fest, bigger” and “better” are the most appropriate words.

While there were five films screened at RISD’s Metcalf Auditorium, I spent the day at the Avon Cinema, seeing three movies. This is the fest’s first year at the Avon, and the theatre is a more than welcome addition to the list of venues. With a colorful marque, addictive popcorn, and five-hundred comfy seats, it’s a stylishly old-school cinema. (It opened in 1938).

My first film of the day was Scrap Wood War, Marien Rogaar’s Dutch boy’s adventure tale gone haywire. As the tale begins, Ziggy and Bas are inseparable friends, but that bond starts to splinter almost immediately. First, Ziggy attracts the attention of Bas’ classmate crush, to his friend’s glaring irritation. Then Bas befriends  a gang of intimidating older kids. At summer camp, kids compete to build the tallest scrap-wood towers possible. When Bas shuts out Ziggy and teams up with his new friends, things start to spiral out of control. A push-and-pull battle of menace, manipulation, and eventually violence ensues.

This is an intriguing premise, but not one you’ve never heard of (think the coming-of-age summer adventure of Stand by Me meshed with the kid-fighting of the first Hunger Games movie). Director Rogaar, however, elevates that elevator-pitch with her blend of suspense and adventure. She gives it the slow-burning dread of a horror movie, with the appropriate nighttime climax. Add in a fourth-wall breaking narrator, moody cinematography, and some surprisingly intense child performances, and you’re left with a nail-biting kid thriller. My only major gripe is with the film’s last 10 minutes. After the big confrontation scene, we’re given an unnecessary happy-ending pat-on-the-back.

PCFF 2015While Scrap Wood War was modestly attended, lines were out the door for the next film Song of the Sea. By the time the lights went down, nearly all of the Avon’s seats were filled by excited parents, ecstatic kids, and squealing babies. For some members of the audience, this was their first big-screen experience. The film is an Irish fable, based largely on the myths of the ocean, and centers on Ben, a pouty young boy with a silent six-year old sister, a depressed father, and a pesky grandmother. He lost his mother as a toddler, just before she gave birth to her daughter Saoirse. When Ben and Saorise runs away from home to get back their dog, they are unaware of the mythical journey that awaits them. It turns out Saoirse is half-human and half-Selkie, an endangered species of seals. Three kindly, singing men send brother and sister on a quest to save the Selkies. But Ben soon finds himself forced with his saving his sister.

Song of the Sea is directed by Tomm Moore, who made PCFF’s 2010 opening night film The Secret of Kells. While both draw from Irish mythology, Kells had the kind of sweepingly epic story you might find in a dusty old book of mythology. Song is a lovely, heartfelt, though often meandering film, with a story you could imagine your grandmother telling. It’s also a work of pure artistry, of hand-drawn animation from a new master of the form. Using gorgeous colors, lots of circular shapes, and a flat yet tactile sense of depth, Moore crafts one of the most ravishing animated films I’ve seen. Nearly every image offers new visual treats for the viewer. Unfortunately, the story isn’t as engaging, and the narrative is a sleepy, slightly confused jumble. Still, the animation alone makes it a must-see and, surrounded by hundreds of rapt viewers, I was swept up by the collective joy of moviegoing. What else could a film festival ask for?

PCFF 2015After hordes of teary-eyed viewers cleared out (the film has a three-hankie third-act), a new crowd came in for Side by Side. Director Arthur Landon’s debut feature is a sibling road-trip story with equal parts family tragedy, dry humor, and warm sentimentality. At the movie’s start, teen Lauren Buckley is living with her geeky gamer little brother Harvey and mentally-ill grandmother. Her parents died in a car crash years ago. People expect big things from Lauren: her athletic agent has big dreams for her running career, her grandmother assumes she will bind the family together, her brother believes she will make everything alright. But the morning granny is supposed to be taken to a nursing home and Lauren is going to sports-centered boarding school, Harvey runs away in search of the grandfather he never knew. Lauren follows, and an adventure begins. 

This sounds like high-stakes stuff and though there are slow-motion chase sequences, Side by Side works best when it seems to be working the least. The casual spontaneity developed during Harvey and Lauren’s one-on-one scenes work better than the more theatrical stretches. Yet while Landon sometimes fumbles (there are predictable scenarios, forced tear-jerking, and a one-note villain), the movie has an amiable, honest tone. Lauren and Harvey are characters you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with, and their journey is one you won’t mind taking.

Though I didn’t see it today, I’d previewed The Boy and the World (O Menino eo Mundo). At once a ravishing visual experience and a cautious commentary on modern society, it’s a meandering animated opus that stuns, provokes, and occasionally bores. The film’s hand-drawn animation is unlike any I’ve seen before: marvelous minimalism marked by boisterous color. After five minutes, one question became clear: is there more to the film than the gorgeous animation? The style, not the substance, is what makes the film so singularly dazzling, no question. But the plot, which begins as a generic “finding a father” quest, eventually dissolves into a surprisingly deep look at commercialism, materialism, and global warming (the meaning is up to interpretation). A pleasantly catchy pop-song that the film replays until it becomes irritating may also be a comment on culture. There are stretches of this largely wordless trip that don’t demand your attention as forcefully as others, that did make me a little squirmy in my seat. But while some may see the film as a pretentious art-school muddle, I think the ambition and artistry make this is a must-see, despite the flawed storytelling. The Boy and The World puts you in a trance that sometimes falters but, at it’s best, keeps your eyes darting around the screen in utter excitement.

Tomorrow: reviews of gravity-defying sci-fi anime Patema Inverted and classic musical Singin’ in the Rain.

Skyfall: An 007 Adventure with a Sense of Mortality (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 28, 2015 | 1 Comment

Skyfall (2012)In many ways, Skyfall (2012, streaming on Netflix) embodies many of James Bond’s signature qualities. It’s suave, sophisticated, and sexy, wryly and quietly amusing but also grandiloquent and self-indulgent, yet somehow still sleek and stylish to the end. It’s quite the ride: 143-minutes of set-pieces, locales, a couple of Bond girls, and a whole lot of things going bang.

In the opening shot, we see an out of focus figure slowly approaching; we slowly realize he’s James Bond, with gun pointed and steely gaze directed up ahead. He quietly prowls around an Istanbul house littered with dead colleagues, searching for a computer that holds the identities of all MI6 members. That search leads him across city streets on a car chase, which segues into a motorcycle pursuit. Finally, one on one on the top of a speeding train, he confronts his nameless, who holds the keys to the downfall of MI6. With barely a trace of remorse, the bitter and acidic M (Judi Dench) orders agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot”, sending Bond falling into the ocean and leaving the organization in jeopardy. But because we’re only twenty minutes of the movie, Bond survives, and is “enjoying death” while staying far away from anything relating to espionage.

When a deadly organization starts leaking the identities of MI6 members, however, he pulls himself back into the game. For once, Bond is seen in less than perfect condition: during target practice, his arms shake and he misses the shot. Lucky for him, M shows a trace of compassion by letting him stay an agent, even though he’s failed all of his tests. Bond’s adventures lead him to Shanghai skyscrapers, a Macau casino, and, after an hour of set-up, face to face with the villain of the picture: the psychotic Silva (played by Javier Bardem, with a head of bad blonde hair and a deliciously nasty smile). Physically, he’s not too much of a scare for 007 but, like the best bad guys, it’s the psychological game of wits he plays with our protagonist that makes him so lethal. Part hacker, part terrorist, he shows no mercy in taking out agents and endangering everything and everyone Bond holds dear.

Plot-wise, this Bond flick is a twisty, layered delight. The stakes have rarely been higher, the villain nastier, the surprises more surprising, or the Bond more flawed. But much like the overrated but enjoyable Casino Royale, the film often suffers from insufferably prolonged action scenes that last up to fifteen minutes. The shootouts, explosions, chases, and fistfights are certainly spectacular, occasionally balletic, and technically impeccable. But these sequences are so ceaselessly tiring you start to wish director Sam Mendes had picked a Bond-averse average joe off the streets and had him snip off a solid 45 minutes of the final cut.

Skyfall (2012)

Still, there’s plenty to marvel at. Despite the flaws, it’s hard to imagine director Sam Mendes having constructed a better Bond movie. There’s a terrific opening credits montage, scored by Adele’s foreboding “Skyfall” song. And the film has a fine sense of the franchises’s history, with familiar cars, characters, and, of course, music popping up at just the right moments. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the images a mathematical precision with clean, sharp framing, along with an artsy and atmospheric sense of color and shadow.

Skyfall also has a fine supporting cast. Judi Dench, as M, finally gets a chance to be a character (and not just a one-note bit of crusty cynicism) and she relishes every second of her screen time. So does Ben Winshaw as a new, tech-savvy Q. Thank goodness he’s in this movie, which might be entirely lacking of fun without him. Bardem, however, simultaneously lightens and darkens the mood with his instantly creepy performance. His one-take entrance, both dreadfully disturbing yet lightly playful, is utterly unforgettable. In his first confrontation with Bond, he manages to frighten, seduce, and reduce  him all at the same time. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes gets a plump part as an old-school Intelligence Committee chairman, though I spent most of his scenes thinking he might’ve made a fine Bond twenty years ago.

What about the Bond we’ve got, Daniel Craig? With his immaculate build, threatening stare, and reluctant smile, he’s the most self-serious and brutally efficient Bond I’ve seen; a Dark Knight 007 for the 21st century. Yet Craig, a man of few words, is lacking in the lively personality that made audiences fall in love with Sean Connery all those years ago. Beneath the muscles and menace, there’s not much there, or at least not enough. I’m not suggesting we need the droll jokiness of 60’s Bond; Craig doesn’t seem to know the meaning of humor, let alone have any sense of comic timing. But it would be nice to see some him show more layers of character.

Skyfall (2012)Luckily, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have concocted a doozy of a finale. With few options left, Bond and M travel, by way of the trusty old Aston Martin, to his childhood Scotland home. For once, Silva will be the one playing catch-up. Bond, M, and a paternal figure (Albert Finney) from 007’s past hide in the dusty old mansion, and face Silva and a team of henchmen. As Silva and his henchmen approach the house, Mendes and Deakins imbue the confrontation with a classic Western vibe; the bad guys severely outnumbering the good. But once inside the house, the tone shifts to that of a horror movie climax, replete with shadowy atmosphere, around-the-corner scares, and delightful booby traps.

What ultimately makes the film, and the final sequence, so powerful is its surprisingly knowing sense of mortality, an awareness of the limits of Bond’s endurance (for once, the time-to-get-back-in-shape training sequence isn’t completely ridiculous). Hey, the later scenes give us the best sense of Bond’s backstory we’ve ever gotten, detailing a Batman-like origin story. During 50 years, 007 hasn’t shown any signs of aging; rarely does he allow us glimpses of weakness, either. But this time, we’re faced with a shocking revelation: he’s still human.

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