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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.

 

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 5: Appalachian Music, Composting, and Our Film’s Premiere

Posted on | February 16, 2015 | Add Comments

The festival kicked into gear today, making a swift recovery after the slight dampening of spirit thanks to the storm. Starting off the day was Okee Dokee Brothers Through the Woods: An Appalachian Adventure, a delightfully joyous romp across the 2,180 mile long trail. The two musicians/hikers are Joe and Justin, who aren’t actually brothers but instead close friends. They plan to travel the entire trail and, while doing so, immerse themselves in the history and music of the mountains. The film balances a sense of lighthearted fun along with the rich history of “mountain music”. They play songs with the people they meet along the way, intermixed with music video-esque shots of the band fooling around. With a less skilled filmmaker behind the scene, the film might have easily slipped into an overly goofy spoof. In the hands of director Jed Anderson, it’s a pleasurable romp for nature lovers and music fans alike. Two local musicians jammed with the kids in the audience to create a song similar to the one sung in the film.

The Second Volume of the Middle/High School Edition of Your Shorts are Showin’ featured six shorts. The two highlights were Monocular Man and Zomposting. Both films balance comedy with drama. Zomposting is a hilarious how-to on composting told in a joyously fun way. The subtitles for the zombie’s dialogue add the perfect tongue-in-cheek touch and it’s all tied together with sharp editing and a memorable voiceover.

Monocular Man: My Eye and Saturn V tells the story of a boy who loses his eye after a firecracker-attached-to-a-rocket doesn’t go so well. The film is done in an incredibly unique way; neon drawings are sketched from the ground up to illustrate the entire story. We can see animator Ellen Stedfeld’s hand as she sketches drawing after drawing. The voiceover adds a witty touch and the script is told from the point of view of the boy. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s eye-opening. After the films, Mike Bell and Rich Pederson of Zomposting and R. Jim Stahl and Ellen Stedfeld of Monocular Man stepped on stage to talk about the process behind their shorts. (The two other standouts were Be the Tortoise, an inventive take on the classic Tortoise and the Hare lesson, and In The Coat’s Pocket which at first feels like an adventure but ends up being a thoughtful allegory on domestic violence.

hps3

Wrapping up the day Flack and I premiered our own film, Amelia as part of the Regional edition of the Youth Filmmaker Show. It was great to see an audience react to our short and I also loved seeing other young filmmakers’ works. From Spanish film parodies to living sushi, jewelry robbers to philosophizing on the cultural status of fashion, there was a wide range of films on display. Fielding insightful questions during the panel after the film was also lots of fun. After working on the project for months, it was incredibly satisfying to share the story behind the film with the audience.

We look forward to the second weekend of films, but in the meantime you can watch past favorites from the festival at local libraries. I personally can’t wait for Finn and Eskil and Trinidad next weekend, both of which I haven’t seen but have heard great things about. In the meantime rest your bleary eyes up for more movie watching.

PCFF 2015 Day 4: Altered Dimensions, Superpowers, and Singing (in the rain)

Posted on | February 15, 2015 | Add Comments

Patema

Frigid temperatures, heavy accumulation, and a parking ban didn’t stop die-hard festival fans from finding alternative means of transportation (i.e. by foot and bus). It was pretty thrilling to see Providence cinephiles show what they’re made of by braving the harsh weather. Asides from the stormy excitement, the festival managed to continue on minus a few viewers and the RISD Auditorium.

I began the day with the sci-fi flick Patema Inverted. “Woah” is an understatement. Patema, a lively young girl, finds herself in the Danger Zone where gravity is inverted and she is turned upside down…Or is she? That’s only one of the many questions Patema finds herself struggling to answer. After meeting a young boy who has more in common than first meets the eye, Patema sets off on a journey to unite both her world and the next, defying all rules of gravity. The film may at times be a bit confused in terms of pacing and tone, but it’s the awe-some science of it’s world that shines through. Unlike some science fiction films, Patema Inverted takes time in sketching out the rules and limits of it’s world in an enthralling way.

singin-in-the-rain-1-1

Next up was Singing in the Rain, my personal favorite of the day. For those who haven’t seen it, well, get yourself on over to the festival next Saturday to watch a seriously classic musical. The film effortlessly combines fun song and dance numbers with a subtle commentary on Hollywood show-biz. At the heart of it all is Gene Kelly whose priceless Don Lockwood is still as superb as ever. Kelly is also behind the camera, not only co-directing with Stanely Donen but also staging and directing the musical numbers. “Good Morning”, “Moses Supposes”, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, and of course the titular song are some of the most iconic musical numbers to grace the silver screen. Donald O’ Conor perfectly steals the show with his deft humor and incredible athleticism.

Following the film, Brian Jones showed off some of his stellar moves. Jones, a veteran tap-dancer, told his inspiring story beginning with childhood inspiration from his english teacher. He interspersed it with some great dancing and even brought some kids onstage to hilariously cute effect. Jones never paused to take a breath, making it obvious that he hasn’t been fooling around for the past forty-three years on stage.Antboy

Sneaking in for one more film, the Danish adventure Antboy spoofs the superhero genre to comedic effect. Young Pelle yearns of getting the girl and being the popular kid…Or at least being noticed at all. After being bit by a radioactive ant, he teams up with superhero geek Wilheim to become Antboy. The film gets by with enough tongue in cheek to keep it grounded in an original way. It’ll hit home with comics fans, kids, and adults. 

Tomorrow: the Okee Dokee brothers, more jury curated shorts and…Our own short Amelia debuting! We’ll see you there.

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.

PCFF 2015 Day 1: A Fun-Focused Opening Night

Posted on | February 13, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF RI 2015

Note From Flick and Flack: The PCFF runs from February 12-22. We’ll be offering daily reports with reviews of everything we see. Flack gets the ball rolling with his take on opening night. Check back tomorrow for Flick’s Friday scoop.

The Providence Children’s Film Festival kicked off it’s sixth fest yesterday with an opening night emphasizing fun. The film of the evening, Spanish kid-adventure Zip & Zap & the Marble Gang, was a big hit, with chuckling kids, smiling parents, and a generally rapt audience.

During the genial pre-screening party, attendees snacked on toast and spreads, chatting with friends and family. It was a big, warm, friendly party, undoubtedly. But the night also celebrated, championed, and displayed the best Providence has to offer: great art, great people, great places.

Oh…and the movie? Zip & Zap isn’t particularly original, nor thoughtful, but as a comic crowd-pleaser it would be hard to beat. Zip and Zap, the brothers of the title, are on the way to summer school as the film begins. But their initial irritation can’t prepare them for the uncompromising, joyless two months that await them. Sneaking by the eyepatch-wearing headmaster, his nasty henchman, and his dog, they form the “Marble Gang” with some new friends and wreak some anti-authoritarian havoc. Along the way, there’s a love-triangle, some twists, a big puzzle, and plenty of adventure.

With characters reminiscent of Harry Potter and a third-act indebted to The Goonies, the film serves up the kind of breezy adventure sure to win over young ones. It’s far from the best of the fest, but leave your cynicism at the door and you’re in for a fun ride. Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the film’s message: playtime teaches you something too. One thing’s for sure. I left the theater hungry for more movies. For the next two weeks, there’s nowhere better to be.

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.

Waking Life: An Ambling Animated Opus from Richard Linklater (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 27, 2015 | Add Comments

Waking Life (2001)Waking Life (2001, streaming on Netflix), Richard Linklater’s ambling animated opus, is the kind of film that will put some to sleep and enthrall others. It’s a brilliant, bizarre, and utterly one-of-a-kind trip.

Waking Life (2001)With a script by Linklater, the film has almost no “plot”, at least in the conventional sense. It’s a chatty, meditative, intellectual feast made up of bite-sized episodes of conversational philosophizing. The film follows a twentysomething drifter (Wiley Wiggins) as he navigates his own dream, listening in on the thoughts of a cast of diverse and unusual characters. A university professor expresses his frustration with the shiftless new generation. A monkey projects and narrates a film. Two friends discuss the possiblities of cinema, then turn into inanimate cloud-statues of themselves. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), from Linklater’s Before trilogy, talk about the last 6-12 minutes of brain activity a dead human has, after the body shuts down. The director Stephen Soderbergh shows up to tell a story about Billy Wilder. And Linklater himself has a fascinating and slightly disturbing story to tell about author Phillip K. Dick.

What makes Waking Life such an innovative, imaginative achievement is the format Linklater chose to make the movie in: rotoscoped animation. First, he filmed his actors the way he would, more or less, in a live-action film. Then a team of Austin artists (largely not computer animators), led by the pioneering Bob Sabiston, animated over that footage using some average Apple computers and a software called Rotoshop. The result is, at first, disconcerting and distracting, even irritating. But, soon enough, you latch into the free-flowing vibe, and marvel at the bizarre beauty that surrounds you. Animation styles sometimes change from scene to scene, while some shots have a bouncy, slightly wobbly effect. The general style is that of a Picasso painting, a Monet masterwork, some modern graphic novels, and maybe some drugs stirred together, and then splattered around with unfettered enthusiasm. It’s so completely different, so fresh, so unlike anything else.

Waking Life (2001)

As for the little episodes that make up the film, some are engrossing and profound, others exhausting and perplexing. There are some scenes of philosophers (mostly non-actors) talking so quickly about such highbrow, scientific ideas that just about anyone without a Phd. in everything will begin to lose interest. It’s also a little pompous that Linklater seems to assume everyone has something grand and genius to say about the universe. And for the first half of the film, the nameless protagonist doesn’t really respond to any of his dream-characters; he just sits, listens, and nods. For a while, this near-wordless blank-slate of a central character is a frustration. With so much going on around the character, it would’ve helped if Linklater had fleshed this guy out, and given us someone to hold on to. Though, that may be the point: we could kind of be following anyone. And  the film gets stronger as it progresses. The protagonist starts speaking, and says some  fascinating things about the consciousness and reality of dreams. Fascinating and more intelligible characters appear, and then disappear, because this is, alas, a dream. Eventually, we’re left with a lovely last shot that takes you up, up, and away.

Waking Life (2001)

Perhaps Waking Life shouldn’t be critiqued as a movie, but debated over as a deep-dive into a director’s brain. All the characters seem to express little thoughts, theories, and ideas Linklater has had, making them more jumping-off points for intellectual analysis than actual characters. Taken for what is, which is a peculiar and rather astounding trip through the mind, Waking Life is a marvel. Imperfect, not for everybody (probably not for most), scattered in every direction? Yes, yes, and yes. But our dreams aren’t supposed to make sense to us, let alone entertain the world. When the movie finishes, you don’t just walk away and move on with your life. It consumes you, fills your brain with new ideas, gets you thinking and dreaming and hoping for more movies like this one, movies so daringly free of constraint and convention.

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