Opinion

Best of 2014 | Yazdi’s Favorite Films

Why do we watch films?

I tend to get introspective this time of year when starting to think about the best films of the past 12 months. I am a listomaniac so I relish coming up with the films; that is not the problem. It is the paring down to come up with the top ten, or even the top fifteen that is excruciating. I have never understood those who bemoan that there are hardly any films worth celebrating from the past year. For me this is akin to those who complain that there is never anything good to watch on Netflix; I do not know what to tell them when I have more than 200 films on my Netflix queue.

This year I am more list-happy than usual. So apart from the list below of my overall personal favorites of the year, I will also be posting a list of the top mainstream films, as well a list of the best films watched at film festivals in 2014.

I think we watch film because film is the great equalizer. Once the lights go down and it is dark in that theater, it puts us all at the same station. All the inequalities of our each individual real worlds, those inherited and those thrust upon us, dissolve away. Social, economic, professional and physical labels all look the same in the dark; they are invisible. And for a short while, we can get lost uniformly in someone else’s world.  Which is why my criterion for picking movies for the year-end list has remained the same year after year: that each movie should have altered something within my emotional circuitry.But let me come back to my original question. Why do we watch films. Why should film matter. This year, being in India during the last week of the year, these questions became somewhat irrelevant. Because film in India is so intricately woven into the fabric of what makes this country what it is, that to isolate cinema and ask of its meaning is purposeless. All those who bemoan the death of publicly screened movies should book a plane ticket to Mumbai and walk into a theater here. And watch how the masses consume film. How they truly lap up film. Like a child consuming a ripe mango. With an almost obscene relish. With an abandonment of the real world that is at first embarrassing, and then unexpectedly comforting. Families come, hand in hand and filter into rows like ants. They jump out of their seats with righteous pride when the Indian national anthem is played before the start of the film, waiting until the last note is played before settling back. They squeal with glee. They talk at the screen. They warn the characters of impending danger. They openly cheer at the protagonist. They talk to each other.  They clap. They eat: covertly brought snacks from home as well as foods purchased during the intermission (yes, there is an intermission, if not formally built into the movie in Indian films then forcibly and often ineptly cleaved into American films). If I sound nostalgic it is because this is how I consumed cinema growing up and I now miss this reckless embrace of cinema, this utter surrender to the joy of it, that is somehow absent in the West. Just this year I shrugged off threats of bodily harm received when I asked someone to stop talking during a screening in San Diego. And yet, and yet, during a screening in India this week, I did not have the heart to ask the same of the audience here; besides it would have taken me the full running time of the movie to make my way through to everyone who was talking during the movie.

What does it say that my top four films (and five out of the top fifteen) are foreign movies. Only that the best in cinema, as always, comes from everywhere, and those who willfully choose to watch only American/English movies do so to their great detriment.

And so here are my personal picks for the best of the year:

  1. THE LUNCHBOX:This film excels at the one thing that often evades Indian cinema: subtlety. A neglected young housewife builds a connection with an older widowed man when lunches she packs for her husband mistakenly get delivered to the other man. The film’s accomplishment is in how deftly it transcends the cliché of two strangers helping each other out. It does so by avoiding a face to face meeting between the two; much of their interaction occurs through handwritten notes accompanied with the lunchbox. The delicate tone so wistfully maintained early in the movie is ruined in the last act when the script tries, very unwisely, to force a romantic beat to the interplay between the two, but when you have as fine an actor as Irrfan Khan at the peak of his abilities it pulls the film through.
  1. ENEMY:What a glorious mind-fuck this film is. A man becomes aware of another who looks exactly like him; even as he tries to reach out to him, the lives of the two start to bleed into each other. Are the two doppelgangers the same person? Is the entire film a documentation of a mind coming undone. Or is it about the necessary duality in each of us. Based on the book by Jose Saramago, the film has no interest in providing easy answers; those insistent on a FIGHT CLUB like reveal should look elsewhere. But the stories of the two men (played with impressive dexterity by Jake Gyllenhaal) play out with a pleasing directness that it should remedy concerns about the film being too opaque. Extra credit: ENEMY will easily make it on any list of movies with the most shocking/perplexing/WTF endings. ENEMY is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. LOCKE: Like BOYHOOD and BIRDMAN, detractors have called LOCKE a gimmick. But what you might call a gimmick is to me the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a safety net. All three films could have fallen flat on their faces on the basis of their innovation. All three are on my best of the year list. The entirety of LOCKE is filmed around a single character driving a car over the course of one night. That is it. As the night wears on, we realize this is a story about a man having arguably the worst night of his life. Tom Hardy plays this individual with slippery insight and writer director Steven Knight takes time to peel away at his motivations. We know the crises this man is facing and has to necessarily resolve while he is driving, but we do not know if he has had these coming to him. Not everything about the film works, but I will never begrudge a film that is able to commit original sin.
  1. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: What richness of contradictions we have here. In a film called A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, you will find very little blood. For a film set in the late 70s, it easily speaks to contemporary themes of corporate greed and responsibility (which is not surprising considering this is from a filmmaker whose first film was MARGIN CALL). And for a mobster crime drama, it is surprisingly moody, some might say glacial even. I believe it is this slow burn that turned off many reviewers. But the simmer pays off as the movie builds a genuine sense of unease, of impending doom. Not interested in indulging in the conventions of the genre this film belongs to, J.C. Chandor instead has crafted the film as a character study of a man trying to do right. In an inherently criminal playing field. Two years in a row now, Oscar Isaac has provided indelible portrayals of men undone by self-destructive behavior that is inseparable from who they are (with FINDING LLEWYN DAVIS and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR).
  1. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING:Much attention has been given to this handsome biopic about Stephen Hawkins, based on a memoir written by his wife. To the handsome cinematography and exacting recreation of a time and place from the past. To the handsome love story of a man many consider more intelligent than any that lived and the woman who stood beside him through his cruelly unimaginable physical deterioration. In fact there is a burnish of handsomeness through much of this film, a sense of rigorous craft with which the film has been put together. I will not begrudge any of those things. But that is not the reason this film is on this list (when say, THE IMITATION GAME is not). The film’s great accomplishment in my mind comes from its second act, when it follows Hawking and his wife through their latter years, much after the moony romanticism from their early years has faded. And it is the unflinching, level-headed honesty with which it regards these characters through the passage of time that the film rises above genre biopic conventions. The script’s refusal to readily submit to pat moral judgments about the two or to obviously tip its sympathies toward one or the other in the couple makes for the best part of this film. The most robust of loves are vulnerable to the cruelties of everyday happenings and it is a wise film that is able to go deep into these murky waters and come out with integrity.
  1. NIGHTCRAWLER: A man trains himself to be a crime photographer in Los Angeles and shows uncommon acumen in negotiating the use of his footage to the local television news stations. There is always something a bit off with the title character, masterfully played by Jake Gyllenhaal, but one of the joys of the film is to realize with sinking fear that there is no line this man will not cross to capture newsworthy crime footage.A film free from moral tether is a film liberated. And Dan Gilroy uses this setting to provide commentary on much of our contemporary mores. In its final act the film descends into a rarified other dimension of queasy disquiet, where you start at the screen the way you cannot look away from a road accident. What great, twisted fun this movie is. This film should have been celebrated at year end as this generation’s NETWORK. And yet it got precious little love. In fact the San Diego Film Critics Society was the only reviewing group to lavish awards on the film.
  1. MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN:The most intelligent individual on the planet, who just happens to be a dog named Mr Peabody takes a human kid (Sherman) through several adventures by way of a time-travel machine. This first feature film based on the Peabody and Sherman television shorts from several decades ago is frankly a minor miracle. It is giddily, wonderfully alive. It is cunningly devious in pulling in history lessons in the guise of time-travel adventure. It is visually as glossy and gleaming and wondrous as any film released in the year (animated or otherwise). But the greatest reason I consider this film a minor masterpiece is the slyness with which it slips in its message of acceptance. When late in the film, strangers in a crowd start saying, one after another, “I am a dog” in defence of Mr Peabody’s right to keep Sherman as his son and family, it was one of the most emotional cinematic moments for me all year. MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN is currently streaming on Netflix.
  1. BOYHOOD: A boy grows up and a film for quietly observes him. It observes him and it observes those around him including his separated parents. Much has been made of the fact that director Richard Linklater had his camera watch the same actor over a period of 12 years, and many have brushed this aside as a gimmick. And yet no one had thought to do this until now. But set aside the thrill of watching the contours of a face change on screen, watch hair bow to the wind of contemporary styles. Even if Linklater had hired separate actors of different ages to play this role, this would still be a great film. Because he makes the brave choice on every page of his script to avoid epiphany, to steer clear of melodrama, to have this be a story of banal everyday happenings. But isn’t that the nature of memory, a series of disconnected unremarkable personal remembrances. Having a film be able to capture the inscrutable and to do it with grace and understatement and to have it mean something is no small accomplishment.
  1. BIRDMAN:This film could have been insufferable. But instead it becomes the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without rope or safety net. It is the story of a has-been star of superhero films who makes one last ditch effort at being relevant by taking on a role in a Broadway play. That is nominally the synopsis of the plot. But I see the film as a study of a person slowly coming undone. A study of a person trying to handle demands both professional and personal, and losing control of the real from the imagined. We could be far more mentally unhinged than our self perception, this film is trying to tell us. And then there is the part about how the film has been shot: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, known until now for films with disparate story lines that converge together (AMORRES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL) does the exact opposite with this film. Oh, and the one thing that there is universal agreement on, is that nobody knows what to make of the ending.
  1. PRIDE:This is the epitome of the feel-good movie. That nobody saw. Why this film didn’t get more love at the box office is baffling. The film carries a 92% rating on the Tomatometer, and the movie all but guarantees that audience members will leave the theater in a cloud of elation. So write the name of this this film down for the next time you are at a loss of what film to rent. The film is based on the real-life events surrounding Welsh mineworkers on strike during Thatcher-era UK who got unexpected and unsolicited support from a gay and lesbian activist group out of London. At first the mineworkers wanted nothing from this group, but gradually warmed up to how they might assist their cause. This film is a case study on how to avoid the sentimental, the hackneyed and the contrived. Every scene here rings with authenticity. And the film pulses with a hard-earned and quiet combination of dignity and anger. Even as it gets to dismal and dark places, the film ultimately demonstrates, with enviable subtlety that the disenfranchised are all the same. Seek out this film at any cost.
  1. THE EDGE OF TOMORROW:This is a fully realized piece of science fiction that is thrillingly alive. How many films about man versus aliens have we seen by now, and frankly what more is left to say? It turns out, plenty. In the hands of Doug Liman, this movie gets shot by shot, scene by scene, component by component, everything right. The movie takes a simple doozy of a premise (based on the book ALL YOU NEED IS KILL) – that of a reluctant soldier caught in a time-loop in which he keeps dying again and again and looping back through the same few days before his death until he is able to find a way to prevail during the alien warfare – and builds a funny, richly executed narrative around it. Say what you will about Tom Cruise but he never phones in a performance, and Emily Blunt has never been better playing a fully convincing badass sergeant. There is an obvious homage to GROUNDHOG DAY with Blunt’s character named Ritam and the battle scene that plays again and again in France is meant to evoke the Normandy invasion. But forget all that and just enjoy what is the best action film of 2014. The film understands that the best sci-fi stories are about ideas, and not about spaceships and aliens. It is blissfully good.
  1. THE WAY HE LOOKS;This film (HOJE EU QUERO VOLTAR SOZINHO) was Brazil’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Academy Awards. It tells the story of Leo, a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability. Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana and the two are inseparable; in many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel and Leo and Giovanna’s friendship will need to be redefined. Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the necessary introduction of a new person Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and played out with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. The Way He Looks makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One The Way He Looks can do. more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance. Yes The Way He Looks may just be a teenage love triangle set in Brazil, but it is the best example of its kind to make you realize that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that gifts viewers with genuine sweetness. THE WAY HE LOOKS is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON:Two couples find out that their five-year old sons had been switched at birth.Think about this premise, and then imagine what most filmmakers might have done with it. To see what Hirokazu Kore-Eda does with this story is to recognize why he is one of the master filmmakers. The film presents a fascinating moral quandary. The discovery of a son you weren’t previously aware of is one thing. But that still cannot match the anxiety of knowing that the child you did rear as your own now legally belongs to other parents who could forcibly take him away. This story could have lent itself to any manner of tonal or stylistic construct. This might have been a bitter, angry film. It might have been a legal procedural. It might have been a deep, soggy wallow of a movie. But LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is none of those things.  Instead the film is elevated because the treatment given to this material is one of quiet observation. Kore-eda has been called an heir to Ozu for reason, not least because of his ability to watch his characters from afar without judgment. And this movie is no exception. It has no interest in melodrama; you will not find a shrill note here. And then there is the one thing about Kore-Eda’s work that makes him one of my favorite filmmakers: he refuses to create villains. There isn’t a mean character in any of his films.  How easy it would have been for this film to tip over, if even very subtly, with its sympathies toward one of the two couples. It would have been easy to call the rich couple out for their patronizing, intellectual detachment, or call the other couple out for being irresponsible and crude. But the film resolutely does not. It quietly makes it clear that each set of parents are well-meaning and generous in their love for their children.  They may be flawed, but both sides are inarguably decent. It is in this recognition of the decency of those who love a child that the film ultimately provides an abiding definition for family; the only one that matters.  That it does so apolitically, unemotionally and with authenticity, is cause for gratitude. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT:Are there more humanist filmmakers working right now than the Dardenne brothers? They have been making exceptional films for a long time, but with TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT they hit a perfect stride, bringing forth a clear, focused story with uncanny insight. And empathy. A woman who returns to work after a long break due to illness finds out that her job has been eliminated and her salary will be distributed as bonus amongst the 16 workers who covered for her during her absence. When she pleads to have her job back, she is told she can have it if she can over the course of a weekend, convince each of her coworkers to give up their bonus. Presented as a simple ethical quandary, this story is about all of the issues that matter today: the crumbling economy, people losing jobs, and the increasing loss of humanity in the great industrial shuffle. This film has one of the best depictions of a functioning clinically depressed individual on screen. And Marion Cotillard, in an Oscar nominated lead performance, breaks your heart. Each time she rises above everything that is pushing her down: her crippling depression, the loss of her job, the pain of having to asking another economically strained colleague to give up their bonus for her sake, every time she smiles in spite of all of that, it is an inconsequential victory. But it breaks your heart. Cotillard plays this character as a broken person. But she never strains for audience sympathy. And in a key scene toward the end of the film, her immediate reaction to a situation quietly demonstrates that she may be emotionally broken, but she has all the strength of character where it matters most. In all the films in all of 2014 that I saw, this is the only one with a fully, acutely human character. The only one breathing the warm exhale of life.
  1. FORCE MAJEURE: What a film this is. Pushing all the right buttons for me, I watched it with rapturous wonder. At different times, somber, probing, achingly funny, wise and damning, this is cinema for those who love cinema. What is it about? Conceptually, oh about a hundred things, but it is nominally about a seemingly perfect young family that completely unravels when they are presented very suddenly with a life-and-death situation. One spouse reacts a particular way and will not be forgiven for that by the other spouse. The most pervasively dominant of all human instincts, the one that prevails even over the basic instinct to protect our own is that of survival of the self. The film’s principal moral inquiry is whether we as a society are less forgiving of men than women when faced with such situations. First of all, FORCE MAJEURE is majestic from a technical standpoint. Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers, and Welles. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist and earns the right to be compared to those filmmakers. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors, some of them kids, and at the same time allow them to do remarkable work. The script here makes wry observations about the the soft, vulnerable, unexamined, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. At one point, upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation, the wife tells her husband: “What’s wrong? That’s not us!” It is a marvelous way to think of one’s relationship. This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate after viewing. FORCE MAJEURE is currently streaming on Netflix

Summer of Blood | Review

Halloween is upon us and with it comes a slew of scary movies; “Annabelle” “Dracula Untold” and “Horns” just opened or are about to.  However, if you are not a die hard fan of having your adrenaline levels peak in the dark or find that a good nights sleep escapes you after getting the bejeezus scared out of you then this may just be the movie for you.  Welcome to Summer of Blood

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Writer/director Onur Tukel turns in a hilarious performance as the monumentally lazy, socially oblivious and commitment-shy Erik Sparrow, who is dumped by his career-woman girlfriend (Anna Margaret Hollyman, White Reindeer) when he rejects her rather charitable marriage proposal. Feeling lost, he turns to a disastrous string of online dates that successively eat away at his already-deteriorating confidence until a lanky vampire turns him into an undead ladykiller. Soon, Eric is prowling the streets of Brooklyn in search of anything to satisfy both his maniacal sex drive and his hunger for blood.

Despite the fact that Eric is such a misogynist loser, Tukel shows skill in making the main protagonist incredibly likable; I couldn’t help but be on his side.  Helped by the witty dry comedy which runs through the movie both Eric and the rather ridiculous plot had me smiling and chuckling for the entire movie including a few belly laughs thrown in here and there.  The dialogue is hammy in places but mostly clever and smart and there is an interesting narrative about the lives we lead if you look for it. Anna Margaret Hollyman who plays Eric’s love interest plays her role perfectly, equally lovable and annoying all at the same time and is impressive in her ability to detest Eric so convincingly.

Summer of Blood is by no means as polished as other undead offerings like “Twilight” or “True Blood”  in fact at times at times this movie looks rather amateurish and even homemade, but that doesn’t make it bad.  I believe this hard working movie could turn into an underground cult classic in due course and I will certainly be lining up to watch this one again

Described as a horror comedy horror, this is more comedy than horror and definitely not a horrible comedy by any means.A collision of absurd, self-deprecating wit and existential curiosity, Summer of Blood is a hilarious horror-comedy with a clever bite all its own that starts with one of the best break up scenes ever right at the beginning of the movie and is definitely worth a watch

The film is releasing this Friday October 17th in select theaters and VOD.  Check local listings for a screening near you

Art and Craft | Review

This documentary begins with the quote “Nothing is original under the sun” however this definitely does not apply to the person who quotes it.  Mark Landis is an artist; a con artist for all intents and purposes and has been called one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history. His impressive body of work spans thirty years, covering a wide range of painting styles and periods that includes 15th Century icons, Picasso and even Walt Disney.

Landis makes an interesting protagonist in the movie Art and Craft, described in his youth as a “bright little boy but prone to be mischievous”, the little boy never quite leaves the screen as you are mesmerized watching this genius copying incredibly complex works of art, a talent that he discovered in his youth after visiting museums with his parents and copying from museum catalogues.  And whilst you may think that Landis may be in it for the money, this is far from the truth. Instead, Landis derives much pleasure and purpose posing as a philanthropic donor, a grieving executor of a family member’s will, and most recently as a Jesuit priest and has given away hundreds of works over the years to a staggering list of institutions across the United States.

 

 

The caper begins to unravel after he dupes Matthew Leininger, a tenacious registrar who ultimately discovers the decades-long ruse and sets out to expose his philanthropic escapades to the art world, Landis must confront his own legacy and a chorus of museum professionals clamoring for him to stop.

What is most enjoyable about the movie is the equal obsession demonstrated by both the forger and the man determined to stop him, like any good Super hero story, the latter needs his arch nemesis and quickly we realize that this movie isn’t actually about the art in question but about the mania of two men each obsessed with their own purpose.  At the end of it all though, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this incredibly talented man did his own work?

ART AND CRAFT opens at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles this Friday, September 26th 
Check local listings for a screening near you

http://artandcraftfilm.com

Out in the Night | Los Angeles Film Festival 2014

Exactly what is the responsibility of the media in reporting news? In my opinion, news should be reported factually and in an unbiased fashion. However we all know that with the advent of syndicated news channels and the need for 24-hour news cycles, it is easy for smaller stories to escalate to larger ones and others to get sensationalized and out of control. Welcome to the movie Out in the Night, a new documentary by Blair Dorosh-Walther that examines the 2006 case of The New Jersey 4.

 

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Through the lives of four young women, Out in the Night reveals how their race, gender identity and sexuality became criminalized in the mainstream news media and criminal legal system.

The documentary skillfully tells the story of a group of young friends, African American lesbians who are out, one hot August night in 2006, in the gay friendly neighborhood of New York City. They are all in their late teens and early twenties and come from a low-income neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Two of the women are the focus – gender non-conforming Renata Hill, a single mother with a soft heart and keen sense of humor, and petite femme Patreese Johnson, a shy and tender poet. As they and their friends walk under the hot neon lights of tattoo parlors in the West Village, an older man sexually and violently confronts them. He says to Patreese “let me get some of that” as he points below her waist. When she says that they are gay, the man becomes violent and threatens to “fuck them straight”. He spits and throws a lit cigarette. Renata and Venice defend the group and a fight begins, captured by security cameras nearby. The man yanks out hair from Venice’s head and chokes Renata. Then, Patreese pulls a knife from her purse and swings at him. Strangers jump in to defend the women and the fight escalates. As the fight comes to an end, all get up and walk away. But 911has been called and the man involved has been stabbed. Police swarm to the scene as their radios blast out warning of a gang attack. The women are rounded up and charged with gang assault, assault and attempted murder. Three of the women plead guilty. But Renata, Patreese, Venice and friend Terrain claim their innocence. They are called a “Gang of Killer Lesbians” by the media. In activist circles they become known as The New Jersey 4.

One can easily forgive Dorosh-Walther for giving us a somewhat one-sided narrative given few people were initially advocating for the women and even fewer people have been able to hear the story from their side, but this is an important documentary to watch. Out in the Night will anger you, sadden you and frustrate you all at the same time and so it should because Justice should be genderless, raceless and sexless and yet we are led to believe time and time again that had these women been middle class heterosexual white women, their lives may have turned out very differently.

The incredible narrative that unfolds over a period of years beginning in 2006 through to present day and in some cases through many of the years that some of the women were incarcerated  will have you glued to your seat. Beyond the injustice however, the most endearing thing about this documentary is the women front and center of the debate, Renata, Patreese, Venice and Terrain, who have very graciously opened up their lives to us.

Out in the Night Trailer

Le Week-End | Review

Having just returned from a vacation in the city of lights, I was both excited and delighted to watch the latest offering from Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on Hudson) and writer Hanif Kureishi (My beautiful Launderette, The Buddha of Surburbia) Le Week-End starring the inimitable Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum. 

Broadbent and Duncan play a long-married couple Nick and Meg who revisit Paris for a long weekend for the first time since their honeymoon, in hopes of rekindling their relationship-or, perhaps, to bring it to an end.  Nick is reticent and wistful whilst Meg is demanding and take-charge.

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The movie excels at showing the couple flip-flop between harmony and disharmony to resignation and back again as they take stock and grapple with love, loss, regret and disappointment in their own very English way.  Tensions rise even further when Meg and Nick run into Nick’s insufferably successful old friend Morgan, an American academic superstar with a fancy Parisian address played by the delightful Jeff Goldblum.

The one thing that elevates this movie is watching veterans of the craft mastering subtle yet impactful acting.  I very much felt like a fly on the wall following Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan playing a couple who have clearly had many decades together.  Their incredible chemistry even when they are fighting is mesmerizing to watch and I couldn’t decide whether I was routing for them to stay together or willing them to break apart.  Just at the point when you begin to feel a little more uncomfortable about being present during this couple’s unraveling, Jeff Goldblum brings some respite in the form of comedy.  His quirky yet intriguing character is just what we need as we need as we head into act three

Hanif Kureishi’s wonderfully poetic screenplay is admirable to watch.  Filled with witty dialogue and heartfelt conversation, this adds a layer of richness to this already beautifully performed movie

Overall, I enjoyed my weekend with this couple although I felt the movie was just shy of greatness.  Higher highs and lower lows would have made elevated this movie from very good to excellent.

Le Week-End will be will be opening on Friday 14 March at The Landmark in West L.A. and Angelika NY, Lincoln Plaza in New York.  Check local listings

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The Mule | SXSW 2014

What would make you carry twenty condoms full of narcotics in your stomach? My automatic answer to this question was “Nothing”, but what if your families’ life was at risk if you didn’t? Welcome to the movie The Mule.

the-mule-poster-404x600Written, directed and starring Angus Simpson with the help of a few others, The Mule set in an 80’s Australia is based on a true story that tells of an innocent rather stupid and simple man called Ray Jenkins (played by Angus Sampson) who gets caught up in a drug smuggling scheme after he wins a yearly award at his local football club

Swallowing around 20 condoms full of narcotics, Ray almost makes it home before he nervously loses his cool in front of security, landing him in a nearby motel so the drugs can flush out of his system. Under the watchful eyes of Detective Croft and Detective Paris, Ray struggles to keep his secret hidden, inflicting bodily harm by avoiding deification. Can Ray keep himself out of jail by swallowing more than his pride, or will the drugs make their appearance in the filthiest of ways?

Regular listeners of the Moviewallas podcast will know that some of my favorite movies are Australian; indeed I own my own copies of Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding which are well worn by now. So it stands to reason that I was equally fascinated, disgusted and thoroughly entertained by the movie The Mule. Beware though; the toilet humor in this movie is like none that I have ever seen before and definitely not for the faint hearted.

Brilliant acting by an incredible cast including Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell (who also shares writing credits) and Ewen Leslie elevate this movie from a good black comedy to an incredibly smart and surprising dramedy which will have you sitting on the edge of your seat as you try to figure out how it will all end for poor Ray. The twists and turns are not predictable and the story is original, if it wasn’t based on a true story, I would think it was unbelievable. This mule is definitely worth a ride if you can get your hands on it. the-mule-slice

SXSW 2014 IS IN FULL SWING AND I’M LOVING IT

SXSW is now in full swing and as a result, we have been soaking up atmosphere, good barbeque and above all else MOVIES!!!

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SXSW Film has grown year-upon-year and this year over 130 movies were on offer to us.  Expertly chosen and programmed, the festival brought together small and large studios, independent and mainstream films, first time directors and seasoned veterans of the industry. To be honest, it was difficult to choose what to see, but I’m happy to say of the Seventeen movies I watched, all offered something unique and memorable. One of the most memorable things for me though is always the opportunity to interact with the moviemakers themselves which always provides depth and dimension to what you’ve just watched

WILD CANARIESWILD CANARIES: When their elderly neighbor suddenly drops dead, a newly engaged couple investigates signs of foul play.

Barri (Sophia Takal) and Noah (writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine), a newly engaged Brooklyn couple, are disheartened by the death of their elderly downstairs neighbor, Sylvia. Though Noah sees nothing unusual about the old woman’s death, Barri suspects foul play and sets out to investigate, enlisting her roommate Jean (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’S Alia Shawkat) to join her on a reconnaissance mission to trail a possible suspect. Tensions mount, however, when the investigation uncovers unsettling secrets throughout the building—including in their own apartment—and suddenly everyone seems like a reasonable suspect. Boasting a stellar supporting cast including Jason Ritter (PARENTHOOD), Kevin Corrigan (THE DEPARTED), and Annie Parisse (THE FOLLOWING), WILD CANARIES is a freshly comedic take on classic film noir. This movie had a lot of promise that didn’t unfortunately deliver. Disappointing for a number of reasons including a confusing and overcooked plot made this difficult to watch and follow. The tonality changed from scene to scene giving me whiplash at times and the hammy dialogue and rather poor overacting made me feel like I was watching a first year film school project.
You know you should leave the theatre when one of the main protagonists wears a large hat and even larger sunglasses and thinks they are unrecognizable in modern day New York. Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murders did this way better and testament to the fact that if you can’t do it better, leave it alone.

VESSELvessel: A fearless sea captain sails a ship through loopholes in international law, providing abortions on the high seas, and leaving in her wake a network of emboldened activists who trust women to handle abortion on their own terms.

Vessel begins with a young doctor who lived by the sea, and an unlikely idea. Rebecca Gomperts, horrified by the realities created by anti-abortion law around the world, felt compelled to challenge this issue; her method: provide abortions on a ship in offshore waters.

Her project, Women on Waves, begins as flawed spectacle, a media frenzy, faced with governmental, religious, and military blockade. But with each roadblock comes a more refined mission, until Rebecca has the revelation that she can use new technologies to bypass law – and train women to safely give themselves abortions using WHO-sanctioned protocols with pills.

From there we witness her create an underground network of emboldened, informed activists, working at the radical cutting edge of global reproductive rights, who trust women to handle abortion themselves. Vessel is Rebecca’s story: one of a woman who heard and answered a calling, and transformed a wildly improbable idea into a global movement.

This is a must see documentary not only because the subject matter is so polarizing but because this really is about a remarkable woman who wants to change the world and is doing so for the thousands of women who she provides assistance to. A well-made account over a period of years, Rebecca Gomperts resolve is unfaltering and enviable. In person, she is as enigmatic and convincing and received a standing ovation at the end of the movie. I’m not sure that the movie will change your mind or position on abortion, but it will prove to you the difference that one person can make and the lengths that people will go to in order to stand up for what they believe in. What I liked most about this movie was the fact that people on both sides of the argument chose to march to the steps of Austin’s parliamentary building following the movie

print the legendPRINT THE LEGEND: 3D printing is changing the world – from printing guns and human organs to dismantling the world’s industrial infrastructure by enabling home manufacturing. It’s “the next Industrial Revolution.”

For the first time in history, the stories of the human beings building an industry have been filmed. The result: Print the Legend which follows the people racing to bring 3D printing to your desktop and into your life. For the winners, there are fortunes – and history – to be made.

Print the Legend is both the definitive 3D Printing Documentary – capturing a tech in the midst of its “Macintosh Moment” – and a compelling tale about what it takes to live the American Dream in any field.

Hands down, this was one of my favorite documentaries of the festival. It even feels strange seeing that in print (uh no pun intended). No really, who thought that a documentary about 3D Printers would rise to the top of my must see list? Well, its because Print the Legend is more than just a movie about the 3D printer itself, this documentary expertly explores a number of themes like friendship, the race for market domination and what happens when a bunch of enthusiastic young extremely clever young men become poisoned by investors and narcissism and we are able to watch the pollution of an American dream. I’m not sure any of us could imagine what it feels like to have to fire your best friends and former co founders, yet we follow this very thing happening and the impact it has on all of those involved. Better than most soap operas, this documentary really will have you on the edge if your seat wondering which company and technology will reign superior in the end. Add to this a charming and controversial fellow who creates videos showing step-by-step instructions to print your very own 3D gun. An explosively smart and engaging look at an industry that is still in it’s infancy and the way in which it may change our world forever with a colorful and entertaining cast of characters who are forerunners in the race. It’s true, Nerds will rule the world but whilst we wait for that to happen watch Print the Legend which will be available on Netflix in 2014. In addition this movie won the 2014 SXSW Film Festival’s special jury recognition award for editing and storytelling in the documentary feature category.

unicornsI BELIEVE IN UNICORNS: Davina is an imaginative and strong-willed teenage girl who often escapes into a beautifully twisted fantasy life. Having grown up quickly as the sole caretaker of her disabled mother, she looks for salvation in a new relationship with an older boy. Davina is swept into a whirlwind of romance and adventure, but the enchantment of her new relationship quickly fades when Sterling’s volatile side begins to emerge. I Believe in Unicorns takes us on a road trip through the stunning and complex landscape of troubled young love.

It would be easy to dismiss this movie as yet another coming of age movie but there is a tragedy and sweetness about the way in which this particular coming of age movie is executed that I haven’t seen often and a depth that is seldom seen as we follow a young girl caring for her very disabled parent. The movie is elevated by two great performances by the two main protagonists played by mesmerizing Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack who capture the impetuousness of young love so perfectly. Yes, there are some huge plot holes and we are asked to take some huge leaps of faith in order to make it to the end of the movie but I think this movie will stay with you long after the credits have run

The Infinite Man | SXSW 2014

What would you do if you could time travel? This is a question I have often asked myself and even fantasized about many times, so when an opportunity presents itself to watch a movie about the subject, of course I’m not only going to be excited about watching such a movie but I’m also going to have high expectations about it.

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Disappointment then is definitely not a word I will use to describe the movie The Infinite Man which is written and directed by Hugh Sullivan and stars Josh McConville, Hannah Marshall, Alex Dimitriades and is about a man’s attempts to construct the ultimate romantic weekend. However when his plans backfire his quest for perfection traps his lover in an infinite loop.

Like all memorable Sci fi movies, at it’s core, this is a love story…well sort of; what I mean to say is that all great Sci fi movies reach elevated heights because they eventually become about mundane things that we can all relate to in our everyday lives despite the fact that they are asking us to buy into a totally implausible idea or concept.Well written, brilliantly constructed and exceptionally acted, I laughed, empathized and cried at some point during this movie but I was always entertained and enthralled unable to predict how this mess would end. The Infinite Man captures perfectly the feeling of being in love and that of being consumed by another whilst taking us to the brink of hysteria and obsession all within the perfect rules of the time travel world that it creates.

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How life actually is vs. what we believe or wish it to be is examined in such a smart, quirky and sweet way. Borrowing cleverly from movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Groundhog Day, Hugh Sullivan has created something tragic, memorable and incredibly romantic in one package. I believe this movie will stay with me for a long time and hope that it quickly finds it’s way to a general release

 

Chef | SXSW 2014

SXSW 2014 is underway and this evening we were treated to the headline movie of the day Chef written, directed and starring the extremely talented Jon Favreau.

Chef tells the story of Carl Casper who suddenly quits his job at a prominent Los Angeles restaurant after refusing to compromise his creative integrity for its controlling owner (Dustin Hoffman). As a result, he is left to figure out what’s next. Finding himself in Miami, he teams up with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), his friend (John Leguizamo) and his son to launch a food truck. Taking to the road, Chef Carl goes back to his roots to reignite his passion for the kitchen and zest for life and love.

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With Food trucks ever popular these days, this is an interesting story about a disillusioned chef at the top of his game who takes to the road to find his mojo again and although the film is very sweet at times mainly due to the wonderful relationship and good acting by the youngest cast member Emjay Anthony who plays Favreau’s son, the flavor of this movie at times is rather confused and overdone. A good example of one too many ingredients that leaves you feeling like you couldn’t manage another spoonful.

Jon Favreau deserves props however for capturing the essence of the quintessential chef, tattooed arms, large frame and a brusque Emeril type character whose kitchen is a delight of plastic bottles filled with exciting colorful concoctions. This along with large amount of food porn that is amazing to watch for those of you who are food lovers keeps you entertained for most of the movie.

Short appearances which feel like amuse bouche by Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt are like visits with old friends that whet our appetites but it is a great performance (although not long enough) by the ever talented Robert Downey Junior which is the cherry on the cake in my opinion.

Overall the message of the movie is a worthy one that reminds us to be true to ourselves and that success will come to those of us that work hard and care about what we do. Unfortunately for me however, this didn’t satiate my appetite overall, and left me feeling like I’d chosen the wrong entree

Open Road will release Chef on May 16.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON | Review

 

Two couples find out that their five-year old sons had been switched at birth.  Think about this premise, and then imagine what most filmmakers might have done with it. To see what Hirokazu Kore-Eda does with this story is to recognize why he is one of the master filmmakers. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON (SOSHITE CHICHI NI NARU) stands head and shoulders above any film I have seen so far this year.

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Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s latest film LIKE FATHER LIKE SON

 

The film presents a fascinating moral quandary. The discovery of a son you weren’t previously aware of is one thing. But that still cannot match the anxiety of knowing that the child you did rear as your own now legally belongs to other parents who could forcibly take him away. Does it matter that the children in this film are only five years old, in that formative phase when they are most impressionable? Would it have been easier if the children were younger?  Is it better to just quickly “exchange the kids” as suggested by the lawyers representing the hospital where the mix-up occurred at birth? What carries greater moral imperative: nurture or bloodline? Confronted with this premise, most of us might say that this would be an easy decision: your child is the one you have loved and cared for as your own, not the one connected by genetics; keep the child you have, and bloodline be damned. But the film argues that the situation might not be as simple.  How are you to observe a child grow up with other parents and see him start to physically look increasingly like yourself?

 

Consider the two couples. Ryoto Nonomiya is an aggressively competitive businessman on the fast track to corporate success. His stay-at-home wife, Midori has given up her career to care for their son Keita. Several characters in the film comment that the Nonomiya home in a gleaming high-rise reminds them of a hotel room. This is a family that is not lacking for much. Yudai Saiki works outside of the city in a somewhat run down appliance store and his wife Yukari is employed at a fast-food chain. They support their three kids including the mischievous Ryusei. The paths of the two disparate families intersect when genetic testing initiated by the hospital confirms that Keita and Ryusei were switched at birth.

 

This story could have lent itself to any manner of tonal or stylistic construct. This might have been a bitter, angry film. It might have been a legal procedural. It might have been a deep, soggy wallow of a movie. But LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is none of those things.  Instead the film is elevated because the treatment given to this material is one of quiet observation. Kore-eda has been called an heir to Ozu for reason, not least because of his ability to watch his characters from afar without judgment. And this movie is no exception. It has no interest in melodrama; you will not find a shrill note here. And then there is the one thing about Kore-Eda’s work that makes him one of my favorite filmmakers: he refuses to create villains. There isn’t a mean character in any of his films. Not the over-ambitious Ryoto in LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, not the strict patriarch in WALKING STILL, and not the absent mother in NOBODY KNOWS. Kore-Eda recognizes that people are seldom all-out malevolent, and to his great credit as a scriptwriter, he has never granted himself an easy out by generating conflict by way of an ill-intentioned character. No, the people who populate his stories all mean well; their actions are driven by who they are and their behavior is conditioned by their upbringing and values. But they are all, without exception, decent people. This is what makes Kore-eda the most humanist of all filmmakers working today.

 

Does it matter that this story plays out in Japan? Not one bit; this film could have been set anywhere in the world. The grandparents are recognizable in their yearning to see more of their children and grandkids, while walking a fine line with not overstepping. Observe the grace and  uncannily natural rhythms captured from the child actors here. And when you have as gentle, nonjudicative, and keenly observant a filmmaker as Kore-Eda, the experiences of a specific few slowly begin to reflect the universe. Notice how the specifics of the two families in LIKE FATHER LIKE SON are used to make deft observations about class differences. The Nonomiyas are the definition of cultured living: they eat healthy, have their son tutored for piano, and live in a catalog-ready home. The Saikis are struggling to make ends meet, live in a much smaller space, and are frequently late; but they are also quick to the laugh and agreeably content. When the Nonomiyas suggest that they are financially capable of taking care of both sons, the one they have reared as their own as well as their biological child, the Saikis bristle with honest indignation. See how easy it would be for this film to tip over, if even very subtly, with its sympathies toward one family. It would have been easy to call the rich couple out for their patronizing, intellectual detachment, or call the other couple out for being irresponsible and crude. But the film resolutely does not. It quietly makes it clear that each set of parents are well-meaning and generous in their love for their children.  They may be flawed, but both sides are inarguably decent.

 

It is in this recognition of the decency of those who love a child that the film ultimately provides an abiding definition for family; the only one that matters.  That it does so apolitically, unemotionally and with authenticity, is cause for gratitude.

 

LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is screening in San Diego at the Landmark Hillcrest cinemas February 14-20. http://www.landmarktheatres.com/Market/SanDiego/SanDiego_Frameset.htm