Sunday, December 8, 2019

Nate Hood on a Marriage Story (2019)

Two years ago after attending the debut of Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories at the New York Film Festival, I spoke with one of my fellow critics about the trajectory of the Brooklyn auteur’s career. The topic soon turned to Lady Bird, the directorial debut of Baumbach’s wife and frequent muse Greta Gertwig, a film which hadn’t been released yet but had generated enough buzz at early screenings to raise more than a few eyebrows. I joked that if Gertwig’s film made more money and won more awards than Meyerowitz he’d probably get divorced in a huff. Lo and behold, Lady Bird did just that, becoming not just one of the best films of 2017 but ending up on many critics’ shortlists for best of the decade. Meanwhile Meyerowitz, which was a good film but not a great one, quickly vanished at the end of the festival cycle.

And while Baumbach surprisingly did not get divorced, he did the next best thing: he made a film about it. Entitled Marriage Story, it’s one of the most incendiary and devastating ever made about the subject, one that seems a direct response to arguably the masterpiece of the subgenre, Robert Benton’s Best Picture-winning Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). But whereas Benton’s film exclusively focused on the husband’s POV and depicting the wife as selfish and antagonistic, Baumbach took incredible pains to make his film as fair and balanced as possible. The sins and virtues of both parents are collected and presented like weights on a scale: Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is attentive and neat, but he’s controlling and had a one-night affair after a year of emotional and sexual starvation; Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is patient and loving, but she escalates the divorce proceedings by violating their agreement to keep things civil by hiring a high-powered lawyer (Laura Dern in a ferocious, scene-stealing performance) to bleed him dry via character assassination. Both sin and are sinned against, but ultimately both are exonerated by the film’s central thesis that the parasitic divorce industry is what turns otherwise amiable couples into monsters.

Baumbach has made a career doing films about selfish, dysfunctional families, but Marriage Story is easily the most accomplished—its script could be taught in screenwriting workshops, its mise-en-scene in directing classes, and its philosophy towards forgiveness in the face of brokenness and woundedness in the pulpit.

Rating: 9/10

Stonehenge Apocalypse

Surprisingly entertaining end of the world thriller works as kind of Dr Who-esque tale gone bonkers.

It seems there are some sort of tunnels under the pyramids. As the explores fumble around they unwittingly set off the mechanism that created life on earth centered on craziness at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites around the world.

It makes no real sense (I mean pyramids transforming into super volcanos?) but it is sold well enough by the cast that you are going with it. Actually Other than the tunnel stuff the whole thing looks and sounds good enough that I was hooked and willing to go with it where ever it was going. More importantly I liked it enough that I told a couple of people that this was a small scale popcorn film worth their time.

Is this the greatest thing since slice bread? Oh hell not but if you like the well done genre films, more serious and better produced than some of the silly Syfy originals, Stonehenge apocalypse is worth a shot

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Two shorts in Oscar contention: MARRIAGE MATERIAL and MALOU

Musical short subject about a woman who goes to a place to teach her to become more marriageable after her current relationship implodes.
Bouyantly up beat music hides the fact that this is dark little confection that will break your heart. It’s a dark tale of selling your soul to fit in and the misery that results.
Currently in the mix for a possible Oscar it is definitely good enough, the question is will the committee making up the short list be able to get the taste of askes out of their mouths.

Sweet little film about a dancer with and artificial leg getting a chance to audition for a prestigious company.
Certain to put a smile on your face, this little gem is in the Oscar mix. While I am not sure it will make the final cut, the film hopefully will have a long life where it’s message about how sometime perceived limitations aren’t needs to be seen by those with handicaps.

Jungle Book (2016)

Disney live action update of their classic animated film is a mixed bag. The story of a boy raised by wolves and hunted by a tiger  while being protected by a panther and bear is a stirring adventure. The trouble is that the need to stick to the source film occasionally spins the film in to groaner territory.

The problem with the film is that in order to shoe horn bits and references to the animated film like King Louie the film has to take some odd turns. The Louie section is simply a call back to the earlier film. I don't really see why the film had to include it. While other references to the earlier film like Kaa work well more often than not the need to echo weakens the film.Worst of all the film includes versions of both Bear Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You neither of which really work.

Part of the problem with the earlier references is the films tone is all over the place. While the addition of real world violence to the story is a step up, the insistence that the film have a sweetness with say the wolf cubs or some other bits weakens the film because it makes clear the film isn't for all ages but one age.

Reservations aside I really like the film a great deal. When the film works, which is often, the film is grand adventure with a real sense of danger. I like that the film doesn't mirror the original film to the point that that I think the best moments are the bits that aren't carried over. I know some people hate the talking animals but at the same time once you'reabout 15 or 20 minutes in things settle down and it works.

I do have to say that with something like THE JUNGLE BOOK one has to admit that this film is pretty much a de facto animated film. After all outside of the actor playing Mowgli the whole film was done in a computer. Its well done but it makes you wonder how many "live action" film could  or should be up for best animated film.

Ultimately THE JUNGLE BOOK is a good adventure that is recommended.(Though Andy Serkis' MOWGLI is infinitely better)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Daniel Isn't Real

Luke’s imaginary friend certainly isn’t a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. He is slick, reckless, hedonistic, and sinister. He is everything Luke isn’t, except he maybe isn’t completely imaginary. At first, he gives Luke confidence, but then he drags the college freshman to some very dark places in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, which opens today in New York.

Daniel first appears in Luke’s young life at a moment when he was dealing with considerable trauma and angst. Initially, the “imaginary” friend provides some fun and distraction, but then he tricks the confused child into nearly poisoning his mother, Claire. When she recovers, she forces Luke to lock Daniel away in a dusty antique doll house. She assumes it is a bit of psychological role-playing, but it really works. Years later, Luke deliberately releases him, because of a vague notion Daniel could stimulate his artistic creativity. In retrospect, that was a really bad impulse decision.

For a while, Daniel helps Luke talk to girls in various social settings, but soon he is pushing Luke towards meaner, more aggressive behavior. Belatedly, Luke realizes Daniel’s influence makes him a danger to others—and himself. But wait, there’s more, which we won’t give away.

Happily, Mortimer does not overplay the “is-he-really-just-going-crazy” card, because a lot of horror fans are probably getting tired of that non-twisty twist. However, there is still some pretty cool imagery of Luke’s troubled subconscious manifested on-screen. It is not Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but it is impressive.

Most importantly, Daniel, played with shark-like cunning and serpent-like charm by Patrick Schwarzenegger, is a terrific villain. He is sort of like a horndog frat brother from Hell. In contrast, Miles Robbins is scrupulously awkward and introverted as Luke, just as the narrative demands. Mary Stuart Masterson is both alarming and distressing as the deeply disturbed Claire. Also, take note of Chukwudi Iwuji, who gets in some entertaining movie head-shrinking as Braun, the college shrink and authority on sacred Tibetan artifacts.

This is a very creepy movie. Screenwriter Brian DeLeeuw, adapting his own novel, serves up some legit surprises that Mortimer skillfully springs on the audience. In Isn’t Real, you can see the same gritty vibe and sense of youthful alienation that distinguished Mortimer’s previous feature, Some Kind of Hate. Yet, the décor and trappings are rendered with such detailed care, it could almost pass for the evil twin of a Wes Anderson movie. Highly recommended, Daniel Isn’t Real opens today (12/6) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Grand Isle (2019)

GRAND ISLE concerns a young man who ends up arrested for murder. Needing to clear himself he tells his version of what happened when he was hired to repair a fence for Nic Cage and his wife. Racing to get the fence done he ends up trapped in the house by a storm. As the weird secrets of the house are revealed, the man must fight for his life from his twisted hosts.

A small scale thriller isn’t going to be the next big thing, however it is going to entertain for its 90 or so minutes as it’s batshit crazy plot spins out. Over done and over cooked this film takes the notion of Southern Gothic and then amps it up a few degrees. You never really buy what’s happening at any point, but you can’t stop watching because you have to see how this is all going to come out.

The performances by everyone other than the two leads are quite good and they manage to keep the film on an even keel, even when then two big names kind of phone in their performances. Kelsey Grammer has never been this stiff and I was forced to wonder if his part was filled by a mannequin from a low rent Madame Tussaud. Cage is not stiff but it’s clear he is doing the part by rote and was counting the money he was being paid in his head.

Worth a look.

Currently in theaters and on VOD

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Vault of Walt 8: The Outer Space Edition

One of the best books in Jim Korkis' Vault of Vault series deals with the projects relating to space that the Disney Studios have touched. From detailed examination of the legendary Man in Space TV show episodes to seeming missteps of TREASURE PLANETand the BLACK HOLE to efforts to keep Tomorrowland current to a run in with Osamu Tezuka and Dr Who, this book is stacked.

Okay a quick warning don't buy the book just for the Tezuka or Dr Who chapters- they are each only two or three pages in the final section of quick stories.  You want to buy the book for the rest which is choice.

I loved this edition a great deal.  While my love for the Tomorrowland  chapters was not high, owing to my doing a great deal of reading on the theme parks over the last few weeks, I did love the rest of the book for all sorts of reasons.

I love that the Man in Space episodes took me not only behind the scenes of the TV show but also the space program as well. This was not the result of Disney working with the government as such but more that he ended up talking with the right people before they stepped out on the stage.

The two chapters on the failure of TREASURE PLANET and the semi-success of THE BLACK HOLE make for great reading. Personally I always find it interesting to go back and look at films that made impressions, for good or bad, decades later when time has washed away the hype and we can see the films for what the are.

The MOON PILOT chapter was a blast since it talked about a film almost o one talks about, as well as discussing the problem that the FBI hated the film and how that effected how the agency saw the studio.

And then there is the final section of delightful short bits where the Japanese Disney met the man himself and a certain time traveler almost ended up as a Disney character.

I was in heaven from start to finish.

If you love Disney Vault of Walt  8, like the rest of the series is a must.

Jim Korkis' Disney Never Lands

Disney guru Jim Korkis takes on the Disney projects that never materialized from a second California park near the Queen Mary to one in St Louis, to unrealized theme park land to unrealized shorts for Mickey Mouse or a Jim Henson Little Mermaid TV series Korkis covers it all...

...well not all since I'm sure there are tons of other projects that could be covered in a second volumes.

As it stands now this is another feather in the cap of Korkis who brings to light all sorts of interesting tidbits about projects that almost went somewhere. These are projects that were pursued by Disney and his organization that actually had a shot at going somewhere. And that is one of the strengths of the book is that Korkis deep dives into the projects to explain to us what might have been and detailing why they never happened. It wasn't always simply a matter of money or seeming to conflict with plans for Walt Disney World but something more.

If there is any flaw in the book it is only one that fans of Korkis' work will pick up, and that is slight, in that some of the stories have appeared in other books that Korkis has written. There have been other chapters on the Marceline Project which is  about Disney's boyhood home or the St Louis Riverfront. However Korkis smartly gives us more detail than in previous books which make the idea of skipping them ill advised.

I really liked this book and I expect it copies to be going off to friends who are big Disney fans.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

10 ( plus 2) Great Unseen Films from 2019

While I am still working on getting through all the films I missed in 2019 before I finalize my Best of 2019 I did put together a list of great feature films that you really need to track down. Some are criminally under seen, some are getting a bum rush and not being appreciated. Some are some of the best films of the year. While I could have and should have done a longer list I tried desperately to keep it at ten by using the following rules:

It had to been floating around for more than the last couple of weeks (DOC NYC had a slew of great films World Premiering that I wanted to included)
If possible it had to play at more than just one festival (Several films I wanted to put on this list are getting screenings next year)
It had to not get a big push/ release or in the two cases where it did they had to kind of fall between the cracks. These are films that seem to need champions.
It had to be a feature. I wanted to add so many great shorts but there are so many that I could do three or four lists of just the great shorts I’ve seen this year

You really should make an effort to see them since some are some of the absolute best films of the year and while others may not quite best of the best - all deserve to be seen.

RUSSIAN FIVE- More spy story than sports film about the Detroit Red Wings making a move to bring Russian players to the NHL. One of the great thrillers of the year, never mind documentaries  which seems to be off most people’s radar. (This should be in the Oscar mix discussion)

GREAT LAMP- The first truly great film in 2019. It is proof why Slamdance is better festival than Sundance. The messy of story of life and friends that came out of the director deciding to make a film instead of killing himself. The result is a masterpiece

MINE 9- Frightening claustrophobic tale of trapped miners that is based in part on true events. As good a thriller as you will see all year.

SHE NEVER DIED- an Oscar worth performance from Olunike Adeliy makes this story of an eternal soul one of the best films (not just genre films) you’ll see all day. What happens when you really have seen it all and tire of existence? Oh yea- it’s also a kick ass action film.

PROMISE AT DAWN- Charlotte Gainsbough rocks the house as Romain Gary‘s mother. It’s a stunning performance in a glorious portrait of the arc of a life.

PALACE- this multi-character study of the people who cross through the titled bar has haunted me for months. This slice of life is as good as ensemble acting gets with characters that latch themselves to your soul for all time.

MISEDUCATION OF BINDU- Still on the festival circuit this little comedic gem about a super brain who wants to finish high school and move on but finds complications was made by filmmakers who wanted to make a film about their lives and we are so much better for it.

CROWN VIC- out on VOD and home video this is a super little cop film that needs to be seen. If you ignore the fact that everything that happens in this film could not happen in one night this is a nifty little old cop/new cop tale that makes the clichés new and entertains the hell out of you.

HAPPY FACE- this has been flipping around festivals since January. This story of a young man pretending to be deformed in order to attend a support group is an unexpected and entirely welcome feel good film. It’s largely played genre fests which is selling this film wildly short. This is just great storytelling with a beating human heart.

SEE YOU YESTERDAY- Spike Lee produced film about a young woman trying to save her brother via a time machine is just great filmmaking. One of the best time travel movies ever, the film scores even higher when it’s social message never gets in the way of the story or vice versa. A scifi classic.

And while I said the list was ten films there are two more I had to include

ACCEPT THE CALL is a masterpiece about a father trying to figure out why his son became a radical Muslim an finding out all sorts of unexpected answers. If you ever wanted to know why good kids answer the call for jihad and what that does to a family track this down.

MARKIE FROM MILWAUKEE- you’ll want to give a hug to the subject of this film who transitioned into being a woman and then transitioned back when his church had problems with the change.

The full year end lists will appear after Christmas.

When Lambs Become Lions (2018) opens in New York Friday

With WHEN LAMBS BECOME LIONS opening in New York this Friday here is my review of the film  From the World Premiere last year at Tribeca

The most heard comment that followed the World Premiere screening of Jon Kasbe's WHEN LAMBS BECOME LIONS was that it wasn't what people expected. It wasn't said in a bad way, only that Kasbe had done one of the things that he is very good at and that is upset people's expectations.

WHEN LAMBS... is the story of the illegal Ivory trade in Kenya. However it is not focused on the killing or just the rangers looking to stop it. The film is a portrait of both the poachers and the rangers as a game of cat and mouse is played between both sides.

Full disclosure-I am unashamedly a huge Jon Kasbe fan. I have loved his work ever since we came into contact four or five years ago regarding one of his films playing at DOC NYC. I have seen a large selection of his work since then and it has surprised and delighted me. His film was at the top of my Tribeca Must See List as a result.

Cut from over 700 hours of film shot over almost four years Kasbe has fashioned a film that doesn't seem like a documentary. Playing more like a narrative he has turned his friendship and access to the forces battling over ivory into something truly special. It is a film full of immediacy and you are there quality. Some how he has managed to put a film together that in sequence after sequence makes you wonder how he got the shot and why the people on screen let him film them.

The answer to that question was revealed in the Q&A following the screening when Kasbe said that he was allowed to film because he had earned the trust of everyone involved. He was with them for more than just the film shoot so they knew he wasn't just going to film and leave. He hung around.  He also added that after a certain point he stopped having what was being said when he filmed translated. By doing that his subjects were less on guard when they spoke. He said that also forced him to shoot more footage since he never knew when he had the right stuff which ended up giving him the best stuff.

What I like about the film, and which I think confuses the hell out of some people, is that Kasbe doesn't take sides. There are no good guys or bad guys. We like everyone because we get to understand them. Actually everyone likes everyone since many rangers were poachers and are still friendly with those in their former lives. Additionally this does not play out as expected simply because there is no artificially created through line. Kasbe simply lets life happen- which results in a whiplash or unexpected ending.

Kasbe is an expert at image creation and editing. No one I have ever seen  has the eye for an image like he does. His images are masterpieces that take your breath away in shot after shot. Time after time I was left to wonder how did he manage to get a shot that perfect. No one could be that lucky or skillful, and yet the entirety of Kasbe's work reveals that yes, he is.

As for editing, the film is astounding.  Watching how sequences play out is an absolute delight as image connects to image telling a greater story. As I was watching the film part of me was pulling some sequences apart as realized that each switch of perspective deepened our understanding what we were seeing.

I am in love with the film, with its craft, with its story and themes.

Half way into it my overriding thought was there is no way I can ever hope to really write about the film until I see it at least one more time.(I will be writing more down the line) However because the film has premiered and because of the need to get word out I've cobbled this piece together.

Do yourself a favor and go see this film. There are only two public screenings left but you must make an effort to go. Not only is this a great film, but is it a beautiful one as well. It is a film of such stunning beauty that when you see the image projected on a big screen you will wonder at how anything could look so lovely.

Highly recommended.

For tickets to the remaining screenings go here.

Jon Kasbe introduces his film at the World Premiere

Jon Kasbe does a Q&A following the World Premiere

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt

After long struggling with Soviet censorship and mandated state aesthetics, Arvo Pärt immigrated to the West in 1980, but he returned to his native Estonia after the fall of Communism. He is widely considered to be the living composer most frequently performed in live concert and is arguably the most important (with all due respect to Adams and Glass). His compositions are not traditional crowd pleasers, but they have a distinctive power that is immediately audible. Receptive audiences can hear it for themselves when Paul Hegeman’s insightful documentary That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt releases today on DVD.

Pärt’s compositions are much more harmonically advanced than many pop listeners will be accustomed to, but that does not mean his music is inaccessible. Instead of hummable melodies, his compositions are more about the totality of the listening experience and the transportive and transformative effect they have on listeners. Several musicians eloquently describe the challenges of playing Pärt. It is not the notes are prohibitively difficult. The trick is finding the right rhythms and timbres. That is what they say, but the stormy violin passage we hear from Tabula Rasa: I. Ludus certainly looks and sounds like quite a test of the musicians’ dexterity and endurance.

Although Hegeman only includes about a thimble full of biography, he clearly establishes how Pärt’s music was forged during the period of Communist oppression and continues to be inspired by his profound Christian Orthodox faith. Pärt has a reputation for being something of an ascetic recluse, but the man we see in Hegeman’s film is very much engaged in the world and has a knack for working with musicians.

That is interesting to watch, but the really valuable aspect of Feeling are the keys Hegeman’s interview subject provide into Pärt’s music. They really help unlock his work for new listeners. Those with an open mind and open ears should be inspired to dive into Pärt’s oeuvre after viewing. Of course, some will just find it too far removed from pre-packaged disposable music from the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Cardi B, but that’s fine if you’re okay being an uncultured philistine.

Regardless, That Pärt Feeling should make us all thankful there are people who are passionate about playing and listening to Arvo Pärt. Throughout the film, Hegeman presents the man and his music in smart, engaging ways. Very highly recommended, it releases today (12/3) on DVD, from Film Movement.