After making ‘Waltz With Bashir’, one of the most groundbreaking animated films of the last decade, the imaginative Israeli director Ari Folman is back with ‘The Congress’, an audacious and adventurous science fiction drama about Robin Wright playing, well, Robin Wright, or at least a certain version of herself. Havery Kietel plays Wright’s agent who persuades her to sign a contract to have her whole body and emotions scanned which will be used digitally in several movies. With her career steadily sinking, she decides to take the offer for a twenty year contract. Danny Huston, who seems perfect for this role, plays the corrupt and evil manager of a production studio who’s handling many of Hollywood’s films. Wright also has a son who’s hearing and vision is falling rapidly. When Wright signs the deal and her body is scanned, we find her twenty years later asked to speak at a conference in the ‘animated zone’. The film then plunges into a series of wondrous and captivating animated sequences which take up a majority of the film’s running time. This form of animation that is used is some of the most striking creations I’ve ever seen in animation history. Wright soon rebels against the studio who’s taking advantage of her and she’s also looking for her son who still might be in the real world. All of the people living in this animated universe are all delusional, escapism junkies who seem trapped in this all too perfect alternate world. When Wright goes back to the real world, the landscape is forgotten, where everyone is standing, trapped in the trippy, drug-induced animated universe. This film is difficult to fully explain in writing, it’s simply one of those great, uncompromising films that you have to see to believe. This is one movie that stays with you long after you see it and I’m still craving to see again. Not only is it a brilliantly designed drama with stunning visuals but it also raises touchy themes about the future of Hollywood that seem cynical and awfully possible. This film examines the digital age in a brave and incredibly bold fashion while also being a great film that could alone be made with the kind of technology that we possess in the digital age. With a strong supporting cast that includes Paul Giamatti as her son’s doctor and Jon Hamm as a man who Wright meets in the animated world. This film is complex, elaborate, and challenging but in a unique way that’s not shown by many filmmakers today. Much like Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece ‘Synecdoche New York’, ’The Congress’ is a layered, imaginative, and massively ambitious film that’s unafraid of taking risks with art, and that’s what makes Folman such a masterful director. 4.5 Stars out of 5
What’s so empowering and ultimately exhilarating about cinema, is the way that filmmakers can present a subject or a topic that you’re possibly not so fond of and create something surprising and exciting out of it. With ‘Expedition to the End of the World’ director Daniel Dencik tackles the subject of the environment, nature, and the wonders of planet Earth. Unfortunately, even with a slim ninety minute running time, this film feels thin and begins to run on empty fumes. The film follows a group of explorers who travel to the icy lands of Greenland to explore, take photographs, and catch fish. There’s certainly some gorgeous photography throughout this film but the nature shots become repetitive and redundant and the film quickly loses track of its focus and structure. The explorers chat constantly about the meaning of life and life on Earth which becomes meandering and dull. Environmental documentary enthusiasts may keep their interest for the entire length however I found myself less and less interested in these explorers findings and discoveries. This may have worked better as a short film on PBS then it does in its actual length that drags towards the final half hour. The music choices are also strangely placed as well, with sleepy Danish choir songs to annoying speedy death metal played throughout. I strongly admire the courage and determination of these explorers to go out and film these lovely areas and there’s some terrific shots of various animals roaming the lands, but this film becomes flat way too quickly. The ending seems to also refuse any satisfying closure as well which frankly felt frustrating. The German new wave pioneer Werner Herzog has conquered this subject with several breathtaking documentaries including ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ and ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ and Herzog seems to bring a sort of life and wonder to his documentaries that Dencik’s film severely lacks. Even with a variety of stunning images captured by their crew, this film doesn’t carry enough substance or enough grandeur to make these adventures matter. 2.5 out of 5
Some movies come out of nowhere and completely restore your faith in the embracing power of cinema.
‘Under the Skin’ is that kind of groundbreaking masterpiece. British director Jonathan Glazer fills this beautifully strange spectacle with haunting dream imagery, a mesmerizing score by Mica Levi, and a terrific visual style.
Scarlett Johansann delivers a brilliantly controlled performance as someone who may be more than human who goes around a small town in Scotland, seduces men and then mysterious things start happening to them afterwards.
This may sound too weird or strange for some audiences to handle, however the film has a sort of transfixing dream-like pull that holds the viewer spellbound with its superb use of nightmarish images and naturalistic dialogue.
Glazer has already put an impressive mark on cinema with his fantastic music videos and his previous two films, the controversial ‘Birth’ starring Nicole Kidman’, and ‘Sexy Beast’ which featured a memorable Oscar-nominated performance from Ben Kingsley.
Loosely based on the novel by Michael Faber, ‘Under the Skin’ is Glazer’s first feature film in over nine years and it’s his most complex and satisfying work to date that’s altogether an enthralling cinematic voyage.
One of the film’s most haunting scenes is when Johansaan’s character meets an ‘Elephant Man’ like being that recalls the film sequences of David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
Glazer’s film is a magnificent examination of what it’s like to truly be a human and the film’s striking images will linger in your memory for days.
Glazer even uses secret cameras throughout his film to capture the naturalism of real people who aren’t actually actors.
Glazer also has an impeccable use of framing throughout this film which enhances the viewing experience exponentially.
This is Johansann’s greatest screen performance, requiring her to explore a wide range of emotional terrain.
Johansaan may seem like just another pretty face in Hollywood but lately she’s been picking bold and daring projects that challenge her own abilities as an actress.
Johansaan first really struck me as somebody with tremendous talent with her remarkably subtle performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation but since then she’s been put in big glossy studio pictures that limited her extremely.
However, last year she delivered some of the most touching voice acting ever in film with her performance in Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’.
Now with her undisputedly ferocious role in ‘Under the Skin’ she’s officially deemed herself as an actress of not just true beauty but of true fearlessness.
It seems incredible that Glazer hasn’t made a feature length film in over nine years and it’s stunning that we’ve been left with the absence of a truly brilliant filmmaker for nearly a decade.
Nobody else makes as fascinating of films as Glazer does and perhaps that’s why he’s such an essential filmmaker to the world of cinema.
‘Under the Skin’ is now playing at The Flicks and is one masterpiece you shouldn’t miss.
It’s quite nice to see a sweet, realistic teenage romance film handled in such a tender way, with absolutely no sentimentality or corniness. That’s thanks to gifted writer and director James Polstondt who made the indie gem Smashed last year which was about a young woman dealing with alcoholism. Now Polstondt is yet again showing these alcoholism themes through his character Sutter who parties and drinks all through high school and doesn’t really think about the future ahead of him. Sutter is played by Miles Teller who you may remember from Rabbit Hole and has been seen in many bad studio comedies such as Project X and 21 and Over. But here Teller delivers a breakout performance that displays his true talents as an actor. Sutter soon meets Amy, a shy, kind and lovely girl played by Shailene Woodley who fuels her character with tremendous sweetness and eager charm. Woodley was sensational as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants and here she shows even more incredible emotional range. Teller and Woodley were so terrific together that they both won acting prizes at this year’s Sundance film festival and they completely deserve it. The movie also features an impressive supporting cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Brie Larson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Teller and Woodley both display wonderful chemistry through the entire film that constantly feels natural, true and honest and the same could be said about this wonderful film. 4.5 Stars out of 5
Usually comedies these days always seem to feel in some way unsatisfying and empty. But Prince Avalanche is not that kind of comedy. It’s a quiet, hilarious and actually moving gem that pulsates with tremendous heart and feeling. It’s also quite refreshing to see writer and director David Gordon Green back in top form. Green started out making smaller indie gems such as George Washington and All the Real Girls and then he suddenly started to gear towards making more studio comedies such as Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter. He now has made a fascinating and wonderful blend of these two distinct styles of filmmaking. The film is actually a remake of an Icelandic movie called Either Way and Green puts his own unique spin on this story of two road workers who are repainting the lines on the road after a devastating forest fire. I’ve always felt that Paul Rudd has a great likability on screen but he seems to often be stuck in horrible studio comedies although here he shows us a side that we’ve never seen from him before as a stern, serious character and Emile Hursh is equally as impressive as a dim witted, immature character and yet both of these actors are playing against type, they’ve never been this wildly funny and memorable. Tim Burr’s cinematography is stunningly gorgeous, wonderfully capturing the damaged, beautiful landscape that serves as their background. The score by Explosions in the Sky is magnificent, which goes hand and hand with the film’s breathtaking shots of nature. David Gordon Green has created a thoughtful and delightful masterpiece that puts him right up there with the greatest American independent filmmakers of his generation, directors such as Gus Van Sant and Terrance Malick. 5 Stars out of 5
Well, it looks like awards season has started already with this historical drama that feels like total Oscar bait. Still, this is a flawed but well made film directed by Lee Daniels who brought us the Oscar nominated Precious. Forest Whitaker gives a fine leading performance as Cecil Gaines, who worked as a butler at the White House serving eight presidents. When the movie opens we see Cecil as a young boy working at a cotton farm with his mom and dad. When Cecil’s father is killed at the farm, he’s taken in by an old woman played by Vanessa Redgrave to work as a house butler. This gives him much experience and he’s soon off to work as a butler in the city. Oprah Winfrey is surprisingly effective as Cecil’s wife who’s an alcoholic, chain smoker who starts cheating on Cecil with the next door neighbor played by Terrance Howard. The film spans many decades and goes through pretty much every major event in the civil rights movement. Cecil’s oldest son, Louis, becomes a part of all the civil rights protests in the South including being part of the Freedom Riders and soon becomes a Black Panther which Cecil firmly disapproves of. Louis is played by David Oyelowo in one of the film’s strongest performances. The presidents that Cecil serves are all played by an array of famous actors including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagan’s. It’s both entertaining and distracting to watch these actors try and morph themselves into their roles and I found the most effective to be Cusack who seems to get many of Nixon’s flaws just right. Whitaker, Winfrey and Oyelowo are all strong here but Daniels seems to have to play some of the dramatic moments a little too over the top and there are some scenes that feel that he’s just trying so hard to make it both powerful and inspirational. But even with all its flaws this is still enjoyable, crowd pleasing mainstream entertainment that some Oscar voters may root for. 3.5 Stars out of 5
If you want to witness a truly magnificent performance this summer, see Cate Blanchett in writer and director Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine. She plays Jasmine, a once wealthy New York housewife to a rich businessman played by Alec Baldwin who winds up having a nervous breakdown because her husband ended up in jail and killed himself. Jasmine soon goes to stay with her sister, Ginger, played so superbly by Sally Hawkins in San Francisco. Ginger has a brutish boyfriend named Chili who’s played very well by Bobby Cannavale who doesn’t much approve of Jasmine living with her and that adds for icy tension between the two of them. Ginger also has an ex-husband who’s played in a surprisingly impressive performance from Andrew Dice Clay. She also starts dating Al who’s played by Louis C. K. who’s much more sensitive and sweeter then Chili is. Jasmine also finds a love interest in Dwight played by Peter Sarsguard who she meets at a party. Jasmine tries to start a new life in San Francisco but her past soon catches up with her again and secrets start to unravel about her life in New York. It’s quite a spectacle to watch Blanchett in an extremely emotionally difficult performance that could have been over the top but is executed perfectly. It’s a triumph that’s simply unmissable. Woody Allen, at age 77, has made one of his most moving films to date that’s easily one of the year’s best. 4.5 Stars out of 5
It’s incredibly hard to find a new, exhilarating voice in American cinema these days but first time writer and director Ryan Coogler is just that kind of talent. The film centers on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22 year old former drug dealer who’s trying to get his life back together and on new year’s eve in 2008, after a fight on a subway train with someone he knew from prison, he’s shot and killed by a police officer. The movie follows him on the very last day of his life and he’s played with such humanity and charisma by Michael B. Jordan in one of the strongest performances I’ve seen all year. You may have seen Jordan in television shows such as HBO’s The Wire or Friday Night Lights but you’ve never seen him better. The rest of the cast is superb as well with some terrific scenes with Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mom. Melonie Diaz is wonderful as his girlfriend and Jordan has some sweet and tender moments with his daughter played by newcomer Ariana Neal. This won both the grand jury prize and the audience award at this year’s Sundance film festival and I don’t think this is the last time that we’re going to be seeing this movie win awards. The film opens with real cell phone footage of the killing so we know that it’s coming eventually but when it does happen it’s shocking and the last shot of the movie is completely devastating. This is a powerful, moving and emotional powerhouse of a movie that left me stunned. 5 Stars out of 5
In 2011 director Nicholas Winding Refn brought his flawless masterpiece Drive to theaters and it captivated the world of film. Now he’s back collaborating with his Drive star Ryan Gosling who takes the lead role in the film playing Julien, an owner of a Thai boxing match who does a bit of drug business on the side. When his brother is murdered for killing a teenage prostitute, Julien goes after the sword swinging cop who let his brother be killed. His mother played by Kristin Scott Thomas arrives and she has a couple memorable scenes with Gosling. The film has some beautiful shots and cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s score is good but the movie is a complete mess. Gosling is one of the best actors working today and he can be so effective playing this type of character in films such as Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines but here he just stares with a blank expression with barely any emotion saying very little dialogue. The film feels unsatisfying, empty and unfulfilling with an ending that just doesn’t work. When the movie premiered at this year’s Cannes film festival it was bombarded with booing and people walking out of the theater. This movie has a fascinating structure and it was certainly made with style and ambition but the story just never comes together much at all. There’s worse films out this year but nothing as crushingly disappointing as this one. 2 Stars out of 5
Coming of age stories about teenagers going through their lives has been done to death lately in Hollywood. A few of these kind of films have mastered this sort of material like this year’s terrific comedy The Way, Way Back which got pretty much everything right from start to finish. The Kings of Summer, which also premiered at this year’s Sundance film festival is a mixed bag. The film has some funny moments but it’s also cluttered with a boatload of cliches. The central character is Joe played by Nick Robinson who’s living with just his dad played by the always hilarious Nick Offerman. Joe decides that he’s just had enough living with his strict dad and he’s just going to go live out in an abandoned forest. He brings two of his friends with him, Patrick played by Gabriel Basso who’s also sick of his parents and a strange kid named Biaggio played by Moises Arias. The parents go looking for them and the three kids hunt, explore and have the time of their lives together until a girl named Kelly shows up that Joe had always had a crush on. The film seems predictable at times and a bit corny with all its montages to rap music but it’s got a gooey sweetness to it that feels sincere. But if you only get to see one coming of age comedy this summer, The Way Way Back is way, way more wonderful. 3 Stars out of 5