Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Animation First -The Short Film Collections

When Animation First starts Friday they are going to run several sections of shorts. The PR people were kind enough to send me links to some of the shorts screening. I did not see everything (none of the erotic shorts were available for pre-screening) however what I did see makes me believe that all of the sections are worth your time and effort. 

Here now is quick word on the films I screened.

This is a collection of largely computer generated shorts meant to be seen in 3D. All of the films have eye popping effects that will be lessened if not seen as intended and on the big screen. A must see collection because of the effects.

Time Out
Thrill ride video as a man climb a clock tower and get bounced around inside it. A must see large and in 3D, it will not have the same effect on a small screen.

5 Meters
This is the awesome film about high diving giraffes. As I said when I originally reviewed it "Wickedly cool and damn near perfect"

Mr Hublot
2013 Oscar winning Animated Short will either thrill you or leave you cold. Forgive me I still don't know why this won the Oscar.

Table Bob
Very short film is a blackout sketch of shorts about a little man dancing on a table until he meets a bad end. A trifle

PIONEERS OF ANIMATION (Autour des pionniers de l'animation)
At the risk of having the festival PR people hunt me down and kill me I'm going to begin by saying that of all the collections this is the one that isn't for everyone. A mix of differing styles of animation and of quality this is a group of films that is not going to play well for everyone. It's not that te films are bad, it's more that some are stilted by modern standards. While the Segundo de Chamon film is great  regardless some of the others can be an aquitred taste since these films were made when animation was in it's infancy.  Recommended for students of film and those wanting to see how animation evolved.

Les Locataires d'à côté (1909)
Two couples living next to each other. The older tries to spy on the younger one at which point the couple becomes animated. Very odd partly animated film that is more curio than anything.

Sculpteur moderne (1908) Segundo de Chomón
Yes the great Spanish filmmaker is represented here. Its not a mistake since he worked in France for Pathe. Here a sculptor unveils their work which comes to life. Like all of de Chomon's work a must see.

Affaires de Cœur (1909)
Intriguing animated love story of hearts taking place with in a heart

Les déboires d'un piéton (1922)
Very Short piece about a man being chased by a car

René Laloux
Animation First is screening the classic FANTASTIC PLANET  by Rene Laloux along wit tree of his shorts. The films can be even stranger than Laloux's feature work and seeing them with the FANTASTIC PLANET is a perfect way to spend an evening.

Les Escargots
A man toils in a field and giant snails wander about. Very Strange

Les Dents du Singe
Strange cut out animation that I'm not sure if I like even if it has monkeys as dentists.

Comment Wang-Fô fut sauvé
Asian set tale is probably te most beautiful film being screened during the whole evening. I have no idea what I fully think of the film but I wish I had seen tis on a big screen.

A very full collection of award winning shorts as tons of great films in them. While I've seen several of them previously, it's been too long to be able to write them up. I have written up the films that I was allowed to screen by the festival.

Mr Hublot
This film also screens as part of the 3D animated  collection and is probably the weakest film in the collection

Stunning visually amazing film about a would filled with living product logos. A copyright nightmare the film is just as amazing as they come and an absolute must see- especially if you've never seen this on a big screen since it will take your breath away.

8 bit video game characters invade our world. This begat te feature film of the same name but is probably ten times more delightful. Its a damn near perfect film and a must see.

For tickets to any of the short collections of anything at Animation First go here.

Before We Vanish (2017)

I saw and loved BEFORE WE VANISH at this past New York Film Festival. With the film opening Friday here is a repost of my review. Also at the bottom is a podcast on the film that Hubert Vigilla and myself did right after the screening.

One of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's messiest film BEFORE WE VANISH is a one of a kind science fiction film (as are all Kurosawa's films). It is a kind of I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE meets THE ARRIVAL but with a comedic edge.

The plot of the film has an alien race sending three envoys to earth and taking over the bodies of earthlings in order to study us and steal concepts from us. They steal the notion of family, work, ect from people they meet leaving them in a psychotic state. One body is that of a teenage girl who wanders alone, one a teenage boy who ends up traveling with a reporter and the third is in the body of a married salaryman whose wife doesn't understand the change that has come over him. The trio must gather their information and then link up so they can call the invasion fleet to wipe out mankind.

What would seem to be bleak tale, the earth is doomed isn't it?, is in an often deadpan funny film about aliens trying to understand humans- and humans forced to try and understand what the words and concepts really mean. What exactly is family? The aliens want to know and you'll be forced to consider what these things mean as well. As an intellectual exercise this film will get you going. (And even emotionally as one turn toward the end had me tearing up).

The film also creates a real split with in the audience members in that we feel for the aliens. We genuinely come to like them so we root for them to be successful in their mission-which means we are hoping they'll wipe us ot. it's a weird weird feeling that leaves us unsettled.

However this being a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film the film is not without its problems...

The first of two problems with the film is that Kurosawa is operating in his "the plot isn't as important as the ideas" mode with the result there are all sorts of plot issues and logic problems that show up. If you need everything to tie together look elsewhere. Kurosawa frequently is not interested in making sure the plot works as he is moving his thematic elements along, and that is the case here. As good as Kurosawa's films are his lack of narrative control is I think is one reason his films often don't get a release in the US.

The other problem with the film is the first hour is rather slow. Yes it's all set up but its also a tad obtuse with the film operating on its on rhythms. You have to hang in until the film finally begins to move.

Personally I like the film a great deal. Flaws and all any Kurosawa film is better than most other directors film simply because he is always trying to do something,even if it doesn't work.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

4K Restoration of King of Hearts, plus Alan Bates & Philippe de Broca Retrospectives February 16-March 8

The Quad announces the 50th anniversary 4K restoration of the beloved cult classic King of Hearts, anchoring retrospectives celebrating the work of the film's star, Alan Bates, and director Philippe de Broca

King of Hearts

Opens February 23—Exclusive New York premiere engagement of 4K restoration
Philippe de Broca, 1966, France/Italy, 102m, DCP
Sent into a French village to defuse a bomb during WWI, Scottish private Alan Bates hides from the occupying Germans in the local sanatorium and finds that the inmates (among them Geneviève Bujold) have, yes, taken over asylum and is crowned their de facto king. This charming ode to nonconformity became a beloved touchstone—across college campuses and revival houses—for the ’60s anti-war movement, and the first taste of foreign-language cinema for many American viewers. Gorgeously restored, King of Hearts finally returns to theaters, its compassionate message still relevant for another insane era. A Cohen Film Collection release

Alan Bates: The Affable Angry Young Man

February 16-22
While remembered as part of the British New Wave of Angry Young Men who made their mark on stage and screen in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Alan Bates forged his own path into movie immortality. He consistently sought out the most intriguing scripts from the most progressive writers and directors, and his stage stints would inform his screen performances, and vice versa. As a result, he was integral to works that defined their eras. Having started in the theatre, Bates prized partnering with his fellow actors; many of his best films showcase other leads, or the ensemble. Yet he made each role his own, and moviegoers came to feel that they knew the man they saw onscreen. For this series we’re reprising four films we’ve shown in recent months, alongside other titles featuring classic Bates performances and several rarely-shown gems, all anchored by a long-in-the-works run of the 4K restoration of one of the actor’s most beloved movies, King of Hearts.
Titles include: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Peter Medak, 1972, UK, 106m, 35mm; Far from the Madding Crowd, John Schlesinger, 1967, UK, 168m, 35mm; The Go-Between, Joseph Losey, 1971, UK, 116m, 35mm; Georgy Girl, Silvio Narizzano, 1966, UK, 99m, 35mm; Rose, Mark Rydell, 1979, US, 134m, DCP; The Running Man, Carol Reed, 1963, UK/U.S., 103m, 35mm; The Shout, Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978, UK, 87m, DCP; An Unmarried Woman, Paul Mazursky, 1978, U.S., 124m, 35mm; Women in Love, Ken Russell, 1969, UK, 131m, DCP; Zorba the Greek, Michael Cacoyannis, 1964, Greece/US, 146m, DCP


Love on the Run: The Further Adventures of Philippe de Broca

March 2-8 — Featuring nine stunning restorations!
French cinema may have given the world auteurism, as practiced over the decades in the work of scores of its directors, but it also birthed filmmakers who were more inclined to create unapologetically crowd-pleasing entertainments than to make personal statements—and with no less ingenuity and energy. Philippe de Broca’s five-decade career began just as the New Wave broke, making documentaries and working as assistant director to his contemporaries Truffaut and Chabrol on their respective debuts. In 1960 he made the leap to writing and directing narrative features—and never looked back. His colorful romps and romances showcased France’s top movie stars, who would happily return to make movie after movie with him. This retrospective sampler builds on the Quad’s run of the 4K restoration of King of Hearts, one of de Broca’s personal favorites—a film dismissed by French audiences but ironically treasured by a generation of American filmgoers.

Titles include: L'Africain, 1983, France, 101m, DCP; Incorrigible (L’incorrigible), 1975, France, 100m, DCP; The Man from Acapulco (Le magnifique), 1973, France/Italy, 95m, DCP; Give Her the Moon (Les caprices de Marie),1970, 92m, France/Italy, DCP; The Devil by the Tail (Le diable par la queue), 1969, France/Italy, 90m, DCP; Le Bossu (On Guard), 1997, France/Italy/Germany, 128m, DCP; Up to His Ears, 1965, France/Italy, 104m, DCP; That Man from Rio, 1964, France/Italy, 112m, DCP; Five Day Lover, 1961, France/Italy, 95m, DCP

The 7th Annual Winter Film Awards International Film Festival tickets are on sale

New York City's 7th Annual WINTER FILM AWARDS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL is coming soon! The Festival runs February 22 - March 3 in New York City with a jam-packed schedule of 93 fantastic films from 31 countries, seriously amazing discussion panels, cool networking events and super-fun parties. 

Come see a diverse mixture of 13 Animated films, 13 Documentaries, 10 Feature narratives, 8 Horror films, 9 Music Videos, 33 Narrative shorts and 7 Web series! Filmmakers come from 31 countries; 40% of the films were directed by women, 43% were made by people of color. Hollywood continues to ignore women and people of color, but Winter Film Awards celebrates everyone! 

Tickets on sale now!
* Screenings at Cinema Village (22 East 12th Street, New York NY 10003). 
* Screening Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door for a 2 1/2-3 hr block of films.
* Discussion Panels + Workshops are free, but require pre-registraton
* Opening Reception, Feb 22 8-11PM, 21+ w/ID, Free before 11pm
* Gala Red Carpet, Awards Ceremony and After-Party, Mar 3 7-11PM, 21+ w/ID, Free before 11pm 

Click the links below for details or visit us at

About Winter Film Awards 
Winter Film Awards is an all volunteer, minority- and women-owned registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 2011 in New York City by a group of filmmakers and enthusiasts. The program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts. 

Corporate & Local Support 
Corporate and local support of Winter Film Awards plays an critical role in the life of the Festival and underscores WFA’s commitment to quality, adventure and diversity in the art of cinema. WFA is privileged to continue our collaborations with Aftab Committee for Iranian-American ArtistsBig Apple ConCinema VillageCinematcherCyberlinkEventcomboFearsMagFranklin, Weinrib, Rudell & Vassallo P.C.Gracelynn CollectionIndiePix FilmsInk TipJungle SoftwareNYC Department of Cultural AffairsNYS Council on the Arts (NYSCA)PS PrintSpotlight Cinema NetworksVariety 411Yelp and Zacuto

WFA is delighted to welcome new partners BackPack WinesBidslateBoom LibraryBrooklyn FireproofEarth Angel Sustainable Production Services, LLCFinal Draft, IncGoodie Girl CookiesGround ControlHome AdvisorHuman HoteliPitch.tvKryolanLuxliNYU Tisch School of the ArtsPassion River FilmsPlatypodRosco Laboratories Inc.SmartSoundSonic LibrarySoundStripeStudio School LA and Vegas Creative Software

American Experimental Animation in the '70s & '80s plays at the at the Quad this weekend

The Quad Cinemas in Manhattan is running five sections of animated shorts of an experimental nature Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Curated by Herb Shellenberger the series dwells largely in the off the beaten path sort of animation. If you have a willingness to try things which really are experimental I highly recommend the whole series, if you are less inclined for the odd then I recommend THE UNDERGROUND CARTOONS Saturday and BODYMANIA on Sunday.

I've seen  a number of the shorts screening an in order to help you make a decision as to which section to see I'm going to give a quick over view of the various sections

One of the more experimental of the group with some films barely meeting the definition of animation with something like THE POP SHOW being  rapid fire images that send up celebrity and commercials while the Rolling Stones Satisfaction plays off and on. The section is a kind of introduction with many of the films coming from the 1960 when the filmmakers were beginning to learn a language new to everyone

Melding the experimental with the avant-garde. This is a very experimental collection where the animators manipulate image and the structure of everything for effect.  Its the sort of thing that is not going to be for all tastes as seen in films like ZIP-TONE-CAT-TUNE which has a cat playing behind and animated grid. Shortest of the  collections this maybe the toughest sell.

Easiest of the collections to connect to since almost all of the films are close to traditional animated cartoons. This is the must see of the bunch if only for Sally Cruikshank's masterpiece QUASI AT THE QUACKADERO which for decades was the height of cartoon trippiness. Drugs are not needed for this gem.  If that wasn't enough the collection has the visually amazing ACADEMY LEADER VARIATIONS  which is animated versions of the 10 second countdown, CURIOUS ALICE a US Department of Mental Health film where Alice goes down the rabbit hole and comes in contact with various controlled substances and PUTTING ON THE FUR which imagines the soundtrack of a Tom and Jerry cartoon with new animation.

A collection of introspective animation. These are very personal films running the gamut of SELF PORTRAIT by Maria Lassnig looking at herself  or GOING HOME SKETCHBOOK or WHALE SONGS which appear to be looks at how certain things resonate for the animator

BODYMANIA - Sunday at 3
Body parts on parade run the gamut from penises in THE CLUB, a head in THE HEAD to weird sex in FLESH FLOWS. There is some really cool and really trippy films here, including the legendary ASPARAGUS which was paired with David Lynch's ERASERHEAD  during its midnight movie run. If you've never seen it then  this collection is a must see.

For tickets and more information go here.

MINUSCULE: VALLEY OF THE LOST ANTS (2013) Animation First 2018

This is an edited version of a review that I ran a couple years back during the New York International Children's Film Festival when the film played there. With the film opening FIAF's Animation First Festival I'm reposting it.

The short version is you have to see this film- even if you've seen it on home video- you need to see this in 3D because it's just that good as a film and as a 3D experience. For tickets and more information go here

... MINUSCULE: VALLEY OF THE LOST ANTS is an animated French film about a lady bug who befriends some black ants who are transporting a tin of sugar to their nest. The black ants end up being hunted by a bunch of red ants who eventually assault the black nest in force. Think cowboys being chased by Indians only smaller.

You have to see, you have to see this in 3D. No, things don't pop out at you but darn the sense of depth adds a great deal to the film. Saying that is a big deal since I hate the extra cost of 3D films and find the process annoying. However you have to keep in mind that this is a great looking (its animated characters in real backgrounds) grand adventure that sucks you in and carries you away. And while this film has echoes and out right steals things from some of the greatest films of all time-it does so in such away that its not showy or over powering. Its like oh look a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, that's cool, but whats going to happen next? You'll care less about the riff then you will about how the characters are going to get out of the danger they are in.

This is a great great film that had the kids cheering and everyone roaring with laughter. Trust me on this, this is a film that will grab you and drag you along-all without one word of human dialog. Yea the insects buzz, tweet and whatever, but no one says a word.

I need to see this again soon because it had me awestruck.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Day of the Crows (2012) FIAF's Animation First Festival

THE DAY OF THE CROWS is playing at FIAF's Animation First Festival this weekend. Its is hands down one of the best animated films I've seen in the last ten years. It is a stunning piece of storytelling and is a must see.  I highly recommend the film, especially if you like the works of Studio Ghibli because this film will make you very aware that there are other filmmakers who are one-uping them. Here is my (slightly altered) review from the New York International Children's Film Festival from a couple years back

For tickets and more information go here.

You're going to hear this compared to the work of Studio Ghibli- forget it. This may play in a similar field but in reality when the film comes together it reveals itself to be it's own powerful tale.

The story follows a young boy only known as Son who lives in the forest with his father. His father is a tough man who teaches his son that there is nothing outside of the forest but the World Beyond. He warns him that should he ever go outside it he will disappear. Son is content to follow his father's instructions until seeing people in the fields outside the border makes him wonder. He lets it go until his father is badly injured in a fall and the spirits of the forest who are is friends tell him to take his father out into the World Beyond for help. This sets in motion a chain of events that will, of course, change everything forever.

You gotta stay with this film for a little bit. It's not that it's bad, it's more that it seems to be going in different directions, with it's various animation styles, (some realistic,some anime like, some cartoony) and magical realism colliding with seeming out right fantasy which makes for a weird mix. There is a point to it all and if you can hang in there you'll be greatly rewarded. By the time the end came I was welling up with tears and had I not wanted to talk to the head of the NYICFF with red puffy tear filled eyes I probably would have been out right crying from the bittersweet ending.

I love when a film upsets my expectations. I love it when a film reveals itself to be fully in control of what it's doing. I love when a filmmaker seems to go at the end "and you thought I didn't know what I was doing..." which is why I love The Day of the Crows. Its one of those films that doesn't do what you expect, and is so much better than you could ever have hoped.

The film seems to be ripping off the Ghibli canon, but this is darker territory. There is death and damage. People are truly broken individuals who aren't always put right in a story book way, but in a real way that comes from losses too deep and pain somewhere past enduring. I can't remember Miyazaki ever having people this broken in his films, nor such careless violence (There is a point to it) or even violence in his films. I know I've never seen any children run out of a Ghibli film out of fear, and that happened here as several younger kids left upset by some of the darkness.

This is a great great film. As of right now it has no US release planned so you really need to get to any of the screening at FIAF because this is something you want to see. This is one of those hidden gems that this website was started to highlight.

Go see this film.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sundance ’18: Genesis 2.0

It is only a matter of time before Jurassic Park becomes a reality. We are already living with the weird hybrid technology of Dr. Moreau. In fact, high school students from around the world compete in the annual International Genetic Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, like Science Fair for prospective Dr. Frankensteins. What does that mean for humanity, as we have thus far known it? It is hard to say, but the woolly mammoth may yet get a new lease on life, thanks to the paleontologists and researchers working to revive the extinct species in Christian Frei & Maxim Arbugaev’s Genesis 2.0, which screens again today as the winner of the World Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The woolly mammoth once roamed free throughout Siberia and its remains can still be found just beneath the ground of the New Siberian Islands. When the weather permits access to the archipelago, hearty fortune hunters band together in search of tusks. They really do not care about the rest of the skeleton, but sometime they will pass on word of a particularly complete looking skeleton. Peter Grigoriev, the primary representative tusk hunter is probably better about that than many of his colleagues, since his brother is paleontologist Semyon Grigoriev, the director of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk.

Thanks to tips from tusk hunters, the adventurous academic recovers a mammoth body that still has preserved, running blood. Eventually, Grigoriev will take those live cells to Hwang Woo-suk—yes, the very same Hwang of the stem cell research scandal—whose Sooam Biotech regularly churns out perfect clones of deceased family dogs. However, for a prospective job like this, they will need the resources of the National GeneBank in China.

So, if you want to see a live woolly mammoth in your lifetime, eat healthy, exercise regularly and maybe it will happen. However, if the mammoth is resurrected, it will most likely happen in China. Frei hints at the possible downside to conceding the future of genetic engineering to China through a tense exchange between Hwang and the PR liaison for the National GeneBank, who seems completely baffled when Hwang’s American colleague expresses ethical qualms regarding the prospect of genetic engineering Down Syndrome out of existence. Who knows what else might be targeted?

There is much to consider in Genesis 2.0, but Frei gives us time to do so. This is a ruminative film that values imagery and symbolism over information downloads. Both Frei and Arbugaev, the former hockey player turned filmmaker, who documented the tusk hunting as co-director and Siberian cinematographer, are clearly fascinated by the parallels between the genetic and primeval trophy-hunting pursuit of the woolly mammoth, occurring simultaneously and represented by the odd couple brothers. They certainly capture some remarkable images, especially Arbugaev, who likely deserves most of the credit for the Jury’s cinematography award.

Some slight pruning would probably make Genesis 2.0 stronger, because it is a bit slow at times. However, it dramatically illustrates our current technological tipping point. Neither Frei & Arbugaev nor Grigoriev or even Harvard genetic engineering guru George Church tell us what we should think about of all this, but the film makes it clear we should start giving it some serious thought. Recommended for science buffs and armchair futurists, Genesis 2.0 screens again today (1/28) as an award-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Renaissance (2006) Animation First 2018

Stark black and white animated film created using motion capture is a visual delight.

A young scientist goes missing and a police detective and his partner go on the hunt- only to find a bigger conspiracy tan either had ever imagined.

The visuals are everything here. The stark shade of light and dark make this truly a cinematic comic book, something the previous year's SIN CITY hadn't quite managed. The film is a monochromatic delight  with the images kind of taking on a life of their own.

While a very good film, RENAISSANCE suffers from a plot that isn't all that remarkable. We've been here any number of times with the good cop running into bad corporate types. There are simply too many riffs from other films to make the mystery all that mysterious.

Weak mystery or no the film is entertaining and if you want to see a film with a truly unique visual style then this film is a must when it plays next weekend at Animation First in NYC. If you've never seen this film or only seen it on TV  you must see this on a big screen were it will overhelm you.

For tickets and more information go here.

Thoughts on Fantastic Planet (1973) Animation First 2018

René Laloux's FANTASTIC PLANET was the film that changed the way many Americans saw animation. In a country were  any sort of feature animation was restricted to Disney's out put and  the very rare imported kids film, animated features were just for kids except for perhaps the occasional Ralph Bakshi masterpiece. No one, as far as most people in America were concerned were doing anything with animation tat pushed the boundaries.

Of course everyone was wrong since there were thriving industries in Japan and Europe, but we never saw it because no one thought there was a market.

That FANTASTIC PLANET got a real US release is amazing. I was a kid in the 70's and I remember my mind being blown by the crazy images I was seeing on the TV screen. What was this film that was coming to theaters? I had no idea. I wouldn't know until the film played on cable in semi regular rotation a couple of years later.

The film is set on the world Ygam were the blue Draags who rule over the smaller human Oms as if they were pets. The conflict between the two species drives the plot as the Oms attempt to break free and make to Ygams moon.

Full of incredible imagery and heady ideas the film found a secure place as a second level midnight movie where Laloux's animation created a unique head space. This was never a film I watched with any regularity because the film required I go with it to Ygam. Its other worldliness was something that both won it fans and lost it viewers who found it too weird.

But its the fact tat it is unlike any other films except Laloux's other films that as made it stay fresh and alive even 45 years later.

If you've never seen the film you should. If you never seen it on a big screen you must go see it when it plays this weekend at Animation first. Yes the Criterion DVD is nice but act of seeing this on the big screen is life changing. It will truly alter how you see the world and animation.

FANTASTIC PLANET plays next weekend at Animation First in NYC. For tickets and more information go here.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Sundance ’18: Arizona

Everybody knows somebody like Sonny. No matter what happens, its never his fault. Sure, he signed an adjustable rate mortgage, but nobody told him the rate might actually go up. Yes, he also killed his realtor, but he was provoked. He then takes his put-upon employee Cassie Fowler hostage, because she made him nervous talking about cops and ambulances.  Sonny never takes responsibility, but nobody gets off easy in Jonathan Watson’s Arizona, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The recently divorced Fowler is in roughly the same boat as the man who abducts her. She bought her home from her future boss, only to soon find herself underwater when the market turned. Now, she is struggling to unload similar houses on not-so-unsuspecting buyers, in hopes of making a commission to apply to her deeply-in-arrears mortgage. Sometimes the erratic Sonny will see her as a fellow victim and sometimes as a sub-prime predator, but he has a nasty habit of killing people in front of her, like his callous ex-wife. Of course, it is never his fault, mind you.

The stakes start to rise when Sonny sets out to abduct Fowler’s daughter for more leverage. Since the gated communities cratered, people moved away, so there was no much pressure on the one-cop police force to expand. Eventually, the resourceful Fowler slips loose, but there is really no place for her to go. At some point, accounts will just have to be settled.

The screenplay by TV writer-producer Luke Del Tredici desperately wants to be topical, but it works better when it settles down and focuses on genre business. If anything, the utterly irresponsible behavior it chronicles undermines its sub-prime messaging.

However, the cast still manages to do wonders with the inconsistent material. Rosemarie DeWitt is highly charismatic on screen, which helps make Fowler an appealingly proactive character. Danny Masterson plays Sonny like a Man-Boy from Hell, basically falling back on his established shtick, but casting it in a darker, more sinister hue. David Alan Grier isn’t around for long, but it is hard to forget his appearance as Coburn, the Keystone-esque cop.

Watson fully capitalizes on the loneliness of the Arizona desert (technically shot in New Mexico, but close enough) and the sinister possibilities of the winding lanes and dead-end cul-de-sacs lined with empty foreclosed houses. Its like Detroit in the desert. In truth, it is a tense, competently executed thriller, but it does not belong in the Midnight section (not enough blood or attitude). Earning a moderate recommendation for thriller fans, Arizona screens again tonight (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’18: Hereditary

(This review may contain spoilers)

Like the saying goes, emotional problems do not run in Annie Graham’s family, they gallop. She always blamed her mother, perhaps with good reason. However, she starts to feel guilty about her long simmering resentments when the semi-estranged matriarch finally passes away. Yet, the full toxicity of Grandma’s legacy soon becomes apparent as the Graham family tragedies compound in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Annie Graham lives with her family in a remote chalet-style home, where she works as a scale-model artist, thereby establishing a creepy locale and décor for Aster to build off. Their teen son Peter can’t even fit in with his stoner friends, but his younger sister Charlie is the real odd duck. Maybe not so coincidentally, Annie and her husband Steve allowed Grandma more access to Charlie, but they totally froze her out during Peter’s early years.

Alas, thanks to a freak accident, Charlie follows her Grandma into the after life soon thereafter. The blame falls on poor Peter, even though the exact circumstances are murky. Graham was already unsettled, but the death of Charlie sends her hurtling down to some dark emotional places. In some ways, Hereditary evokes the spirit of The Babadook as Graham’s relationship with her son becomes increasingly poisoned. Yet, there is also plenty of The Conjuring, when a member of her grief support group convinces Graham to try to reach Charlie through seances. This being a horror movie, her instructions turn out to be seriously flawed.

Hereditary is getting a lot of buzz, because its depiction of family dysfunction is nearly as harrowing as its supernatural horrors. As Annie Graham, Toni Collette gets frantic and feverish beyond on all reason. It is sort of a cross between Isabelle Adjani in Possession and a dramatically less shticky Meryl Streep in Ossage County. In a straight domestic drama, she would be excessively over-the-top, but in a claustrophobic horror film like this, she is just what the mad doctor ordered.

Aster’s narrative takes some shockingly dark and insidious turns, but it all seems believable, thanks to his masterful control of atmosphere. Each time he drops a revelation, it raises the hair on your arms. His horror movie mechanics are spot-on, especially in his use of Graham’s diorama models. Plus, there is an attic to the Graham house that you really wouldn’t want to rummage through.

Gabriel Byrne nicely counterbalances Collette as the painfully reserved Steve Graham. Milly Shapiro (one of four young actresses who originated the role of Roald Dahl’s Matilda on Broadway) gives a remarkably weird performance as Charlie, making the more conventional teen angst of Alex Wolff’s Peter, pale in comparison. Of course, Ann Dowd is rock solid as Joan, Graham’s séance buddy, in scenes reviewers will want to revisit after the fact.

Hereditary is an unusually good-looking horror film, thanks to Pawel Pogorzelski’s eerie cinematography and the richly-detailed, award-worthy work of production designer Grace Yun, art director Richard T. Olson, and the rest of the design team. This is a deeply scary film that fans of James Wan ought to flip over. Highly recommended, Hereditary screens again this afternoon (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’18: Beirut

There was a time when Lebanon’s capital city was a prime tourist destination, renowned for its night life. Then the PLO moved in and the party came to a screeching halt. Up-and-coming Foreign Service Officer Mason Skiles was stationed there when things first started to go bad. Reluctantly, he agrees to return ten hard years later in Brad Anderson’s Lebanon, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In 1972, Skiles’ star was on the rise. Lebanon was getting more violent, but it was not the wasteland ruled by the Hezbollah terrorist group that it is now. Skiles and his wife were in the process of adopting a war orphan named Karim, but unbeknownst to the Yanks, the scruffy thirteen-year-old is actually the younger brother of notorious Munich terrorist Abu Rajal. That is why the Mossad crashes the Skiles’ soiree hoping to grab Karim, but his brother’s faction gets him first.

Flashforward ten years. Skiles is now a boozy labor mediator, who wants nothing to do with the Middle East. However, he gets pulled back in when all-grown-up-terrorist Karim abducts Skiles’ old pal, Cal Riley, the local CIA hand. Karim demands the release of his brother in exchange for Riley and he insists on Skiles as the negotiator. Rather inconveniently, the CIA is not holding Rajal and they are far from sure the Israelis are, either.

Tony Gilroy’s screenplay is very le Carré-esque, in that it posits mixed motives and duplicity on all sides. At least in this case, that includes the PLO, who might be the scummiest of all, which indeed they are. Regardless, there is plenty of enjoyable intrigue and a fair degree of action. Using Morocco and CGI, Anderson also gives us plenty of opportunities to gawk at the wreckage of the city, Holidays in Hell-style.

As Skiles, Jon Hamm makes a perfect boozy anti-hero in the Graham Greene tradition. He has the right look, size, and presence to be a disillusioned policy wonk who can mix it up with terrorists. Frustratingly, Rosamund Pike is largely squandered as Riley’s trustworthy protégé, but Mark Pellegrino exhibits his usual flintiness as the hardnosed Riley.

Beirut is a cynical film, but what can we expect, given the backdrop? If anything, the prognosis for the Hezbollah-dominated nation is even worse now, than during the civil war-torn 1980s. Anderson maintains a healthy pace and juggles the large cast of characters adroitly enough. Recommended for fans of murky international thrillers, Beirut screens again today (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Just Charlie (2017) hits DVD and VOD Tuesday

Teenager Charlie is a champion football player in England. He is headed toward a huge career in the pros. His father is thrilled since in Charlie he sees the opportunity he never had in his life. The trouble is Charlie isn't sure he wants to go that route, at least not as a boy.

Good heartfelt look at the trouble of coming out as a trans-gendered person. Looking at all of the problems one can run into JUST CHARLIE makes us feel for the young woman's plight.

Beautifully acted, especially by Harry Gilby as Charlie, the cast manages to hold our attention even when the script hits the expected points a little neatly. It is the cast that makes this film worth the price of a rental.

My one quibble with the film is the ending, which while fine unto itself, comes after a rather dark and unexpected turn which would have made a more powerful ending. Had the filmmakers not opted to lighten things up I would have loved JUST CHARLIE even more, however they did and I kind of feel slightly cheated.

Reservations aside, JUST CHARLIE is recommended.

JUST CHARLIE  is released on DVD and VOD Tuesday from Wolfe Video

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sundance ’18: Revenge

This country wouldn’t be so violent, if we could just keep out the French. That seems to be the clear take-away from this new vengeance horror-thriller. The director happens to be French too, but she is also a woman—an inescapable fact that gives her a different perspective on the brutality of the New French Extremity movement and the grindhouse tradition of the rape-revenge thriller. Jen, the party girl, is in for a hard time, but she will give back even more than she gets in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Jen does not mind that her French lover Richard is married—and neither does he. The important thing is he has money and the right kind of looks to be with her. It is maybe implied that he and his frog hunting buddies work for some sort of merc contractor, but details are kept deliberately vague. Regardless, Richard, Stanley, and Dimitri certainly seem to be comfortable with guns. The latter two were supposed to arrive after Jen had already left the isolated desert vacation home, but Jen is a good sport when they show up early. Unfortunately, Stanley takes her flirtiness as sufficient grounds to rape her during Richard’s absence. When he returns, he is quite disappointed by the state of affairs, but when Jen rebuffs his hush money he decides to kill her instead.

Usually, getting pushed off a cliff and impaled on a jagged tree trunk is enough to kill most people, but not Jen. Despite her hard-partying ways, she instinctively adapts to the hunter-prey cat-and-mouse game. She also discovers the healing power of peyote. Frankly, her epic cauterizing scene has some logical potholes (kids, do not try this at home), but you have to give the film an “A” for effort. However, Revenge really locks in during Jen’s big showdown with Richard, back at the ranch. Let’s just say Fargeat fully capitalizes on the sticky, slippery nature of blood (when it flows and pools).

It is a simple title, but that is what Revenge is all about. Matilda Lutz handles Jen’s transformation from sex kitten to spiritual vengeance warrior as convincingly as anyone could. Kevin Janssens does a similarly credible job with Richard’s evolution from loverboy to stone cold man-hunter. Vincent Colombe basically makes us hate Stanley more and more, taking him from callous attacker to sniveling cowards, but he is certainly effective.

So, where can we build a wall to keep the French out? As this grindhouse subgenre goes, Revenge is about as brutal as it gets, while still preserving the cathartic satisfaction of the payback. Granted, it is a small body of work to judge from, but Revenge still represents a radical departure from Fargeat’s previous work, the relationship-driven science fiction short film, Reality+. Nevertheless, she clearly knows what she is doing. Along with cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert, she clearly evokes the look and spirit of “classic” exploitation cinema. Even more intense than Cravioto’s Bound to Vengeance (a.k.a. Reversal), Revenge is recommended for hearty viewers who can handle its graphic extremes, when it screens again tonight (1/26) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’18: The Catcher was a Spy

According to Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, Werner Heisenberg’s commitment to Germany’s atomic bomb program was an ambiguous uncertainty that bedeviled the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr years after the war ended. An American OSS agent had to make that determination based on a few hours observation and a brief conversation. He was not a physicist, he was a professional baseball player. Nicholas Dawidoff’s bestselling chronicle of Morris “Moe” Berg’s WWII service is now dramatized in Ben Lewin’s The Catcher was a Spy, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Berg was a member of the Boston Red Sox, but please do not hold that against him. He was a dependable but not spectacular journeyman player, who held roster spots on several teams. He spoke several languages, including German and Italian, and regularly read foreign policy journals. As a result, he had the foresight to film Tokyo harbor during a 1934 exhibition tour, well before Pearl Harbor. Once the war started, Berg’s talents and his 16mm film attracted the attention of “Wild Bill” Donovan and the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor agency.

Eager for field work, Berg gets his chance when Donovan orders him to prevent the retreating Germans from abducting or killing Italian scientist Edoardo Amaldi, with the help of Dutch physicist Samuel Goudsmit and Major Robert Furman, the Manhattan Project’s intelligence chief (who would later oversee construction of the Pentagon). However, their Italian mission will lead to a trickier assignment in Zurich. Berg is to meet with Heisenberg, assess the status of the German Atomic program, determine whether Heisenberg is trying to advance or hinder its progress, and if the former proves true, kill him.

Without question, Berg is one of the great, under-heralded figures of World War II history. Arguably, he is the sort of renaissance man you just do not find anymore. He was also a “confirmed bachelor,” which led to plenty of speculation that Robert Rodat’s screenplay continues to stoke. Be that as it may, the film also nicely captures the intriguing milieu of the Donovan-era OSS.

Paul Rudd is does some of his best work bringing out the personal contradictions of the deeply patriotic and borderline-savant-like Berg. He also develops some ambiguously potent chemistry with Sienna Miller in the otherwise under-written role of Berg’s lover, Estella Huni. Catcher is also packed with colorful and convincing supporting turns, including Paul Giamatti as the humanistic Goudsmit, Mark Strong as the evasive Heisenberg, and the great Tom Wilkinson as Paul Scherrer, the Swiss anti-Nazi physicist, who brokered the meeting between Berg and Heisenberg.

It is just tremendously refreshing to see a film that celebrates American intelligence operatives as heroes. It also thinks quite highly of scientists and soldiers. It is a fascinating true story and a well-crafted period production. Very highly recommended for fans of historical intrigue (like Bridge of Spies), The Catcher was a Spy screens again this Saturday (1/27) in Park City and Sunday (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

War of the Worlds The True Story (2012)

Brilliant retelling of HG Wells War of the Worlds as a kind of Discovery/History Channel documentary. It is in its way quite possibly the best version of the story that I've seen and one of the great finds of the year.

Structured around an interview given by "Bertie Wells" the last known survivor of the War With Mars in 1965 and which sat undiscovered for 50 years, the film is a mix of "actual" footage of the invasion from 1900 along with recreations. It is all tied together with a note perfect narration which puts over the whole thing and makes you believe this was a real thing.

I don't know what to say abut this film other than this is great filmmaking on every level. Perfectly set up to look and feel like the many documentaries that fill cable TV it sucks you in and drags you along from the get go. We believe the film is real because the recreations and effects play out exactly as these sort of documentaries do. We are tricked into thinking it is real because it simply looks real.

One of the best things about the film is that much of Bertie's story and the narration are lifted from Wells book whole cloth. I found myself reciting lines of dialog because I know the book. And while some may argue that Bertie is a bit too flowery consider that he is supposed to be a writer from a time when such flowery descriptions were common place.

I love this film and when it was done I wanted to put it on and go all over again.

Highly recommended, the film is out on home video and VOD including Amazon Prime

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sundance ’18: Science Fair

Most high school students participating in this competition do not have the opportunity to earn a varsity letter, even though their work could save lives and alter the future. That isn’t an exaggeration. The projects brought to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) are amazing. Not to belabor the obvious, but imagine what these kids could accomplish (for our benefit) if science fair competitions enjoyed roughly comparable support and prestige to what most schools bestow on football and basketball. Regardless, the young scientists and engineers keep plugging away in Cristina Costantini & Darren Foster’s kid-friendly documentary, Science Fair, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

As is the case for typical high school athletic tournaments, students qualify for ISEF by winning various state and regional science fairs. To do so, they produce real research and original inventions. For instance, Anjali Chadha invented a compact detector for Mercury contamination in bodies of water. Costantini & Foster also closely follow Myllena Braz de Silva and Gabriel de Moura Martins from a hardscrabble rural district in Brazil, who have developed a low cost, scalable method for diagnosing Zika. We’re not public health officials here, but these sound like useful projects to us.

Like football or College Bowl, science fair competitors need coaches. Frustratingly, none of the science faculty at Kashfia Rahman’s gridiron-centric South Dakota high school were particularly keen to coach her, but the football coach was happy to support her (good for him, but frankly, most viewers will want to see those so-called science teachers get called out on camera). On the other end of the spectrum, Long Island’s Dr. Serena McCalla is a hands-on coach and dogged motivator, who has an impressive nine students qualify for ISEF.

The students Costantini & Foster follow run the gamut from popular Zenned-out surfer dude to the driven first-generation sons and daughters of immigrants, but they are all wickedly smart and have genuine screen presence. These are good kids, whom the audience will fully and deeply invest in, on an emotional level. With the help of editors Tom Maroney and Alejandro Valdes-Rochin, Costantini & Foster balance their large cast of character with remarkable dexterity. We get a very good sense of who they are as people and decent thumbnail understanding of what their projects are all about.  They also keep the pacing peppy, while building towards the suspense of the ultimate best-in-show announcement.

Forgive the cliched term, but Science Fair is indeed a “feel-good movie.” Cheers to Sundance for programming it in its kids section, because has the potential to get youngsters fired up about science. If it could even get science teachers at Rahman’s public high school interested in science, then it would really be getting somewhere. Enthusiastically recommended, Science Fair screens again this Saturday (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.