Thursday, November 13, 2014

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (2014)

Written & Directed by Justin Simien


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. October 26, 2014 8:25PM


Way back in 1986, "She's Gotta Have It", a charming, low-budget comedy about an African-American woman not feeling compelled to settle with just one man, ushered in a fresh new voice in cinema; Spike Lee. Brash, incendiary and fearless, Lee created introspective films about the African-American experience while loudly criticizing the Hollywood establishment for continuing to ignore this audience. After one of the director's biggest critical and commercial triumph-to-date, the Oscar-nominated, "Do The Right Thing" in 1989, it was expected that many other film makers of color would be given opportunities to work in the industry. Sadly but not surprisingly, this has not really come to pass.

"Dear White People", the excellent first feature from another fresh voice, writer/director Justin Simien, takes a satirical look at the lives of black students at Winchester, a fictional, predominately white college. Far less volatile than Mr. Lee's work, Simien still deals with the complex subject of race and identity with thoughtful perspective, edgy humor and brutal honesty.

We meet some of the African-American students attending the university including Troy (Brandon P. Bell), bright, handsome and popular, is under extreme pressure to excel, no matter the cost. It doesn't help that his father happens to be the school's Dean (Dennis Haysbert) which means he must always be beyond reproach. Attempting to put some distance from a rough past, Colandrea (Teyonah Parris) reinvents herself as "Coco". With a long weave and pricey outfits to create the proper image, Coco uses her video blog in an attempt to express herself and generate much-desired attention. And we have freshman, Lionel (Tyler James Williams, best known as the lead in the sitcom, "Everybody Hates Chris") who is a true outsider. Gay, socially-inept and sporting an out-of-control afro, he doesn't seem to fit in with any group nor does anybody want to claim him either.

Then there's Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a bi-racial student, who takes a militant stand with the radio program she hosts called "Dear White People". While offering rhetorical advice to this group, Sam not only wants to make a point but also clearly provoke. She runs for Head of House of their all-black dorm on a lark and surprisingly defeats the perceived winner, Troy. This sets off a chain of events beginning with Sam, wielding her new power, kicking out some white students dining in their dorm during lunch. One of them is Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the obnoxious son of the school President. This doesn't sit well with him and vows retaliation. The tough-talking Sam is not all she appears to be, desperately trying to keep another part of her life on the down-low.

Being small fish in a big pond, the black students eventually turn on each other to gain or maintain whatever small amount of power they can achieve. When Coco fails to be properly noticed, she resorts to more desperate measures. This all leads to a campus party where the theme is African-American with white students arriving dressed in offensive, stereotypical depictions. Thanks to hip-hop and films, many of these young white kids seem to admire African-American culture but are clueless to the ugly history of such representations. Once the black students catch wind of this event, the already tense environment explodes in to raging violence.

It's difficult enough simply mentioning the subject, let alone mining actual humor regarding contemporary race relations however, Mr. Simien is game and manages with great success. The director doesn't hold back, making for some uncomfortably funny moments. And when the students drop their guard, revealing their fears and frustrations, the film is equally effective. The young, largely unknown cast is quite impressive with Ms Thompson (who you may have seen on TV's "Veronica Mars' and will see in the upcoming MLK bio-pic, "Selma") quite riveting as the angry but conflicted Sam.

"Dear White People" displays that while much has improved for African-Americans in this color-blind age of Obama, many issues regarding race relations have evolved very little. We, as a society, should finally be ready for a serious, meaningful discussion of this topic yet the question remains; is anybody able to really listen to each other? Anybody?

Friday, October 31, 2014

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)

Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr, and Armando Bo


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. October 20, 2014  5:20PM


"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)", the twisted, backstage comedy, handled deftly by co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, will be best remembered as the film that rightly put Michael Keaton back in to the spotlight as it displays his exceptional and undervalued abilities as an actor. He's been kicking around for a while, first breaking out in Ron Howard's initial box-office hit comedy, "Night Shift" in 1982 before moving on to film stardom with "Beetlejuice", "Mr.Mom" and the first two of Tim Burton's re-imagined "Batman" that helped usher in the cinematic era of the super-hero. He hasn't done much to note of late but Mr. Keaton delivers one of the finest performances of his career playing Riggan Thomson, a washed-up film actor who was once famous playing a masked crime fighter, Birdman. As he tries to rebuild his career with a Broadway-bound play he has written and plans to direct, an adaption of a Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", Riggan is haunted by his past. The voice of Birdman keeps tormenting the actor, reminding him what a failure he has become and how doing this play is pointless. Keaton is completely in his element here as he is able to use both his comedic gifts and sharp dramatic skills.

During rehearsals, Riggan realizes that the lead actor hired is wrong but a stage mishap conveniently creates an opening for the role. Jake (Zach Galifianakis), a friend and producer of the show, suggests that Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) would be a perfect replacement and his name could even boost the box-office. Riggan agrees and with Mike dating fellow Hollywood star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who just happens to be the female lead of the play, this rocky production might finally be turning a corner. However, Mike is a highly temperamental, egotistical method actor who sees no issue with drinking real gin on stage as it will only serve his performance. After Mike breaks character to reprimand Riggan for removing his booze during a preview, he wants him out. Jake reminds him that the show is now sold-out and they can't afford to lose this difficult actor.

If the play wasn't enough, Riggan has to contend with an actress (Andrea Riseborough) in the show he's been sleeping with who may be pregnant. He also wants to repair his damaged relationship with his sullen daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab. As an attempt to bring them closer together, Riggan has hired her as his assistant but this plan has made them grow even more distant. His ex-wife (Amy Ryan) has come to the opening of the play to lend support until she finds out what he's done to finance this dream project. And a New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) has promised to close the play with her poison pen, mainly because she resents the trend of movie stars coming to the theater and taking jobs away from real actors.

The truth is, Riggan isn't much different from Mike. He's a self-centered, manipulative jerk. He's also a talented thespian who has always, and continues to put his work first. This former action star is at a crossroads in his career as well as with his life. With the sound of Birdman growing louder in his ear and the pressures of the show mounting, Riggan begins to unravel, losing a grip on reality. No longer knowing where he begins and his costumed alter-ego ends, Riggan is convinced that he's using his super-powers to trash his dressing room in a fit of frustration or blissfully flying across the Manhattan skyline.

Iñárritu, after a series of thrilling but challenging Academy-Award nominated dramas including "Amores perros", "21 Grams" and "Babel", has decided to lighten up with "Birdman" as his first comedy, sort of. There is certainly some quirky humor to be found here but more serious moments involving anxiety, melancholy and fear is what actually drives the film. "Birdman" soars thanks to the impressive camerawork of cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who won the Oscar last year for "Gravity" and is sure to be nominated once again for his work here) as the film appears to be one continuous take. The camera follows tightly along as the actors travel throughout the majestic St. James Theater in New York, zips out in to the street and darts back inside.

The director has assembled a perfect cast, using these actors in ways we don't ordinarily see them. Norton is wild and hilarious with his runaway ego mowing down everyone in his path. Mr. Galifianakis, who came to fame with his over-the-top wackiness in "The Hangover" films, delivers a restrained performance that surprises with it's sincerity. Ms Stone abandons her sweet and sunny disposition while effectively snarling and seducing with raw passion.

With Iñárritu's inventive direction, "Birdman" takes flight as this offbeat satire examines the trappings of Hollywood fame that reduces sad and desperate people to behave quite badly. The highlight is the extraordinary work of Michael Keaton who is memorable as the tortured artist who just wants one more opportunity to prove to the world, and to himself, that he's able to create something of true value.

Friday, October 24, 2014

2014 AFI FILM FESTIVAL PRESENTED BY AUDI


The lovely face of screen legend, Sophia Loren graces the poster for this year's American Film Institute Film Festival presented by Audi running November 6th through November 13th. The Italian actress is being honored with a special tribute to her luminous career on November 12th with screenings of the 1964 classic, "Marriage Italian Style" with Marcello Mastroianni, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow", the 1963 film directed by Vittorio De Sica and her most recent work, "Human Voice", a short directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti.



Once again, AFI will be offering free tickets to all of the screenings beginning today in addition to festival packages and passes for purchase which offers various privileges to films, presentations and events. The gala screenings will be held at the home of the Academy Awards in the Dolby Theatre while regular screenings will be shown in TCL Chinese 6 Theatres and the Egyptian Theatre .

The Opening Night Gala will be "A Most Violent Year", the latest film from writer/director, J.C. Chandor. This will be the world premiere and stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as a 1980's New York couple trying make a better life for themselves while wading through the crime ridden streets of the city.



Another world premiere will be "The Gambler" which is the Centerpiece Gala. Mark Wahlberg stars in this remake of the 1974 James Caan film as a college professor who gets in way over his head in the world of underground gambling. John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams and Jessica Lange also star.



"Foxcatcher" has been selected to close out the festival. This fact-based drama directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote") has been receiving plenty of buzz due to the amazing, transformative performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo

The festival will present special screenings which includes Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman" and "Inherent Vice" as well as offering a wide selection of programing ranging from world cinema, American independents, new auteurs, breakthrough filmmakers, short films, midnight screenings and cinema's legacy. For the complete list of films, please click below:

AFIFEST 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GONE GIRL (2014)

Written by Gillian Flynn


Directed by David Fincher


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA October 6, 2014 5:35PM



I think "Gone Girl" is the first film I've ever seen that begins as a tense, foreboding mystery and as the story unfolds, evolves in to an outrageously deranged satire. But in the masterful hands of David Fincher, this transformation is seamless and absolutely perfect. Based on the mega best-selling book by Gillian Flynn, the director audaciously examines the explosive sexual politics of marriage, especially in these modern times where the role of women is constantly in flux between their traditional position and a more complicated, liberated role in the relationship. The film also takes a look at our preconceived ideas on guilt and innocence and how the media now has the power to shape these opinions.

On the morning of his fifth anniversary to his lovely wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) begins the day very low-key by visiting the under performing bar he owns with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). When he returns home, something seems strangely amiss. The door has been left open and the furniture in the living room is shattered yet Nick doesn't appear overly concerned. He calls the police and Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) arrive to investigate. With a coffee cup never leaving her hand, the detective goes through the house, marking suspicious areas with yellow post-its, and peppering the missing woman's husband with a barrage of questions.

Days go by, a search party is formed and Amy's parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) go in front of the cameras to beg for their daughter's safe return. Nick, at the press conference, comes across as passive and oddly detached. Once television crime evangelist, Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle doing a spot-on Nancy Grace type) goes in front of her large-scale audience and proclaims Nick must be guilty due to his strange behaviour, he soon becomes the only logical suspect. But is he actually responsible for his wife's disappearance? If you have read "Gone Girl", then you know exactly how guilty Nick Dunne actually is. If not (like myself), then you will be able to savor all of the surprising twists and turns without any expectations. Nothing in this apparent crime, nor the couple's marriage, is what it appears to be on the surface. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn more about Nick and Amy from their early courtship to the more challenging marital times when Nick loses his job as writer and the couple having to move from New York to a small town in Missouri to care for his ailing mother.

Ms Flynn, a one-time film critic for my favorite magazine about entertainment, "Entertainment Weekly",  was lucky to get the unusual opportunity to have a hand on the screenplay and creates a solid adaption of her work. The author was also fortunate enough to have arguably one of the best film makers working today to be involved on the project. With a history of tackling stories that explores the darker side of human relationships which includes "Fight Club", "Zodiac" and "The Social Network", Mr. Fincher is in his element and brings his somber visual flair to these proceedings. The director receives invaluable help from his long-time crew who all have been recognized numerous times by the Academy for their work with him. This includes cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, editor, Kirk Baxter and the eerie musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Mr. Affleck has become a well-regarded director with the films, "Gone Baby Gone", "The Town" and the 2012 Best Picture, "Argo" but as an actor, he's been adequate but never has done anything particularly noteworthy. That is now in the past as the Oscar-winner gives an impressive full-bodied performance that is sly, edgy and unpredictable. As more evidence piles up against his character, he makes you begin to doubt his involvement yet still never seeming to be completely guilt-free.

Reese Witherspoon is a producer of the film and flirted with the idea of playing Amy. While she may have been perfectly fine in the part but Mr. Fincher had another thought and that's when Ms Pike enters the picture. The British actress has been around for a while, making supporting appearances in films such as "Die Another Day" and  "An Education" but never made much of a solid impression. Clearly the director saw something in her and his instincts have paid off. Much like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction", Ms Pike's performance in "Gone Girl" will completely alter her career. She is mesmerizing as a woman caught between struggling to be the good wife and wanting no part of that role. To simply state she displays a crazy range of emotions would be a true understatement.

The supporting players are uniformly excellent with surprising nice turns from actors far better known for their comedic roles, Tyler Perry as Nick's lawyer and Neil Patrick Harris perfectly creepy as Amy's old flame but special mention must be made about Ms Dickens and Ms Coon. These actresses have made their mark previously on television (both on popular HBO shows; Dickens on "Deadwood" and "Treme". Coon in the recent hit, "The Leftovers") and the stage (Coon was a Tony nominee for the recent revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe") but their juicy roles here give them a shining opportunity to play a strong, fully-developed female character which, sadly, is rare these days in cinema.

Sure, a few of the plot points, while quite clever, don't hold up under closer scrutiny but "Gone Girl" is so good that it's hardly a distraction. The combination of Gillian Flynn's deft skills as a storyteller and the stylish artistry of David Fincher has made this film one of the very best of the year. They have managed to take a unsettling subject matter and make it highly entertaining and thoroughly unforgettable.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

Written by Jonathan Tropper


Directed by Shawn Levy


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. September 22, 2014 5:40PM



"This Is Where I Leave You" is a dysfunctional family comedy with dramatic elements. The film is very funny, in fact, hysterically at times. However, whenever any melodramatic moment creep in, it simply distracts, throwing things out of whack. The broad humor makes it very hard to take any of this clan's problems and anxieties seriously.

Shawn Levy, who helmed the "Night At The Museum" franchise and the low-brow remakes of "Cheaper By The Dozen" and "The Pink Panther", has no clue on how to find the right balance. He has taken the dark themes of the story, based on the book by Jonathan Tropper (who also had a hand on the screenplay) smoothed out the sharp edges with a breezy, sitcomy sense of humor. Appealing TV comedy vets, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and "Girls" quirky heartthrob, Adam Driver are also on hand to make all these complex situations go down easy.

Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda), a noted psychologist has assembled her adult children to return home to upstate New York after their father has died. Her son, Judd (Bateman) who works for a shock-jock (Dax Shepard) is struggling to hold himself together after he has caught his wife (Abigail Spencer) cheating with someone he knows quite well. Wendy (Fey), saddled with a workaholic husband and two hyper children, is still haunted by the neighbor boy (Timothy Olyphant) she loved as a teen but left after he became injured in an accident. The no-nonsense Paul (Corey Stoll) has to deal with his anxious wife (Kathyrn Hahn) desperate to get pregnant while also bitter that he stuck around to work with their father in the family business of sporting goods. Phillip (Driver), the wild-child, baby brother, arrives to the service with his latest girlfriend in tow; an older woman (Connie Britton) who also happens to be his former shrink.

Hillary informs her children that their non-practicing Jewish father's dying wish was that they sit shiva in his honor. Reluctantly, the brood agree to remain in their childhood home for seven days to mourn. This situation manages to stir up plenty of old grudges and petty bickering among the siblings. Some of their hostility is directed at their unfiltered mother who became a best-selling author on child-rearing which used her own as prime examples. Sharing their private adolescent challenges to the world still doesn't exactly sit well with them.

Each member of the Altman family struggle to work through their complicated issues within themselves and with each other but none of these characters are fleshed out nearly enough to offer a convincing resolution. This isn't for a lack of trying from the film's highly distinguished cast of actors which includes stage actress, Debra Monk as Hillary's close neighborhood friend and Rose Byrne as Judd's chatty high school crush.

While the heavy family dynamic in the really scary, dark comedy, "August: Osage County" was unbearable, "This is Where I Leave You" is unbelievable. You won't buy for one second that any of these people could possibly be related. That doesn't mean you won't have a good time and quite a few laughs. The real issue is that the film is trying much too hard to be something it's not. Which is any type of drama. Embrace the comedy and move on.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM (2014)

Written & Directed by Ned Benson



Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. Septemeber 16, 2014 3:10PM



"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" starts off with Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Connor (James McAvoy) sneaking out of a New York restaurant after not having money to pay the bill. In the afterglow of that thrilling adventure, this young couple, clearly in love, begin making out in a nearby park. The next moment we see Eleanor throwing herself off a bridge, trying to end her life.

What happened in between these two scenes is explored in this inspired but disjointed film by writer/director Ned Benson. We learn that a horrific event is the catalyst that frayed their once solid relationship. The couple being unable to cope with this tragedy together is what ultimately drives them apart.

After Eleanor is released from the hospital, she leaves her husband and moves back home with her family in the suburbs. The full house includes her French cliché of a mother (Gallic screen legend, Isabelle Huppert), serious Professor father (William Hurt), single-mother sister, Katy (Jess Wexler) and her young son.

Connor has no idea where his wife has ended up but desperate to locate her. Having to give up their apartment, Connor has temporarily moved in with his distant restaurateur father (Ciarán Hinds). He has followed in his father's footsteps but hasn't achieved the same level of success. Connor is struggling to keep his bar/cafe afloat but engaging in physical altercations with customers isn't great for business. His only real friend, Stuart (Bill Hader) works in the kitchen and at a loss on how to help his distressed buddy.

Eleanor (yes, she is named after that Beatles song which is explained in the film) decides to further her education and with her father's pull, enters an important course taught by his former colleague (the great Viola Davis). Connor has tracked down Eleanor and begins stalking her at the campus before getting the courage to approach his estranged wife. The reunion is less than jubilant but does break the ice that has the couple begin tentatively speaking.

The original concept of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" is that there were two separate films subtitled "Him" and "Her" which covered the demise of the couple's relationship from each of their point of view. However, when Harvey Weinstein bought the films for distribution, he felt it would be better to combine the two films which lead to "Them". It's unlikely this was a smart move but you can have an opportunity to judge for yourself, if you desire, as "Him" and "Her"will both be released in October.

Back to "Them", we see fragments of  Eleanor and Connor each trying to move forward with their lives while looking back, hopeful, for some sort of reconciliation. While these scenes are well-written and superbly acted, we are left in the dark on a few of the important key events that occurred between these two; their everyday lives together, the actual break-up and dealing with the tragic circumstance. Any of these moments would have helped connect emotionally to what we are given to witness. Perhaps the individual films will shed more light and flesh out the issues between Eleanor and Connor, however this condensed version feels incomplete.

The supporting cast is really terrific and they all, surprisingly, get several opportunities to shine and strut their stuff. But the film belongs to Chastain and McAvoy, two magnetic screen personalities who complement each other quite nicely. The performers expertly capture their character's pain and melancholia as they strive to come out of the darkness and once again, find their light.

The consolidation of two separate stories to make "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" doesn't seem to have helped improve the film. The elimination of that cinematic experiment only managed to make the film less focused and undistinguished. Despite the setback, this is still an admirable work filled with highly impressive performances.

Monday, September 22, 2014

2014 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL


One of the biggest events of the fall cinema season, The 52nd Annual New York Film Festival kicks off on September 26th and runs through October 12th. The opening night selection is "Gone Girl", the highly anticipated film adaption of the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn. David Fincher ("Sev7n", "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (U.S. Version)") directs this mystery-drama about a man (Ben Affleck) who becomes a suspect after his wife (Rosamund Pike) disappears on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary. Neil Patrick Harris (?) and Tyler Perry (???) also star.



The centerpiece selection is the world premiere of "Inherent Vice". Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights", "The Master") is the first filmmaker to make a movie from the works of Thomas Pynchon. Set in the 70's, Det. "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets involved in a messy case involving the disappearence of the boyfriend (Eric Roberts) of his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston). With Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro and Reese Witherspoon.



"Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)", the latest from Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros", "Babel"), closes out the festival. Michael Keaton plays an actor who was once famous for playing a super-hero and now struggles to get a Broadway show off the ground while dealing with his complicated family life and bruised ego.This dramedy also features Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone.



For more info and the complete slate of films, please click below:

The 2014 NYFF