Thursday Movie Picks #42: All in the Family Edition – Father-Daughter Relationships (Biologically Related)

ThursdayMoviePicksHappy Thursday everyone! This is another entry to the weekly Thursday Movie Picks that’s spearheaded by Wandering Through the Shelves Blog. Here’s the gist:

The rules are simple simple: Each week there is a topic for you to create a list of three movies. Your picks can either be favourites/best, worst, hidden gems, or if you’re up to it one of each. Every last Thursday for the first nine months of 2015 I’m running the All in the Family Edition and today the theme is… 

Father/Daughter Relationships (Biologically Related)

I actually don’t really have much experience or memories of father/daughter relationship, as my dad was never really part of my life after my parents split when I was three. I was raised by my late mom and strong-willed grandma, the latter was a successful businesswoman revered by her family and peers. So in a way she’s as close to a father to me given her strict rules and occasional anger outbursts that used to petrify me but now that I look back, I find it kind of endearing.

Despite not having a biological father present in my life, I certainly appreciate father/daughter relationships in movies, here are three that left a big impression to me:

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

ToKillAMockingbirdI didn’t get to see this film until my intense Gregory Peck obsession days, but it’s truly the moment when the actor became the character. Talk about a dream dad. No matter how busy he is, town attorney Atticus Finch always have time for his kids and he genuinely enjoys their company — he doesn’t see time for family as a chore.

I remember tearing up a few times as I watched Atticus interacting with his vivacious young daughter Scout (Mary Badham), displaying his affection and sharing his wisdom in the most natural way. It’s obvious that Scout needs her dad just like any young kid needs their father, but I think those moments are crucial for Atticus too, beyond just the familial bond. Being with his young daughter must’ve reminded Atticus of the purity and goodness of life amidst the darkness and brutality he faces every day in his job. I live vicariously through Scout in her moments with her beloved dad, and I certainly take his wise words to heart…

“…you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them…”

Apparently the father/daughter bond between Peck and Badham carried over beyond the film set. The two became close in real life and kept in contact for the rest of their lives, Peck always called her Scout.

Regarding Henry (1991)

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People remember Harrison Ford mostly for his iconic action roles as Han Solo or Indiana Jones and granted he’s fantastic in those roles. But I absolutely love his performance in Regarding Henry, which is a wonderful story about second chances. One of my favorite moments in the film are the ones Henry spend with his young daughter Rachel (Mikki Allen).

In his *old* life prior to the event that transformed him, Henry barely had time for his family. Suffice to say he didn’t really know his one and only daughter, he’s too busy being a hot shot lawyer and having affairs with his secretary. Interesting that Henry’s also a lawyer like Atticus but clearly he’s got his priorities out of whack. But he’s given a second chance to make it right and his daughter helps him do that. I LOVE all the scenes where she teaches him the most basic things like reading, as he’s back to being a kid again, literally. Ford and Allen have a wonderful chemistry, their scenes together are endearingly funny and so full of heart.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)
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Whenever one hears Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, naturally we think of Elizabeth & Darcy’s relationship. But in Joe Wright’s film adaptation, I love the depiction of Lizzie (Keira Knightley) and her dad Mr. Bennett (Donald Sutherland). Clearly she’s her father’s favorite and he understood her much better than her mother ever did.

I LOVE this quote when Lizzie’s mother insisted that she married Mr. Collins…

Mr. Bennet: Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins… And I will never see you again if you do.

The scene towards the end when Lizzy asked her father’s permission to marry Darcy is also wonderful…

Lizzy: He and I are so similar.. we’ve been so stubborn

Mr. Bennett: You really do love him don’t you?

Lizzy: Very much

Mr. Bennett: I can’t believe that anyone can deserve you.  It seems I am overruled.  So, I hardly give my consent. I could have not parted with you my Lizzy to anyone less worthy.

Veteran actor Sutherland portrayed Mr. Bennett so perfectly, with such calming wisdom and compassion. The scene of him crying is so utterly moving, once again the chemistry of the cast work beautifully here.


What do you think of my picks? Have you seen any of these films?

 

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Wordless Wednesday: the unrequited love of ‘The Age of Innocence’

WordlessWednesdayIn honor of the double birthday of Michelle Pfeiffer (57) and Daniel Day-Lewis (58), I thought I’d highlight their work (and scorching chemistry) in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. It remains one of my all time favorite period dramas (and one of my faves of the 90s), and that unrequited love story never fails to move me to my core.

Words fail me to describe the beauty of this story… so I’m going to borrow the words of Roger Ebert: “It was the spirit of it — the spirit of the exquisite romantic pain. The idea that the mere touching of a woman’s hand would suffice. The idea that seeing her across the room would keep him alive for another year.”
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Newland Archer: You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one. No one can endure that.

Ellen Olenska: I’m enduring it.

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Ellen: I think we should look at reality, not dreams.

Newland: I just want us to be together!

Ellen: I can’t be your wife, Newland! Is it your idea that I should live with you as your mistress?

Newland: I want… Somehow, I want to get away with you… and… and find a world where words like that don’t exist!

ageofinnocence_still2This may not be a violent film from Scorsese in physical term, but it’s certainly a vicious one in terms of matters of the heart. Certainly one of the most painfully-exquisite portrayal of unrequited love.


What’s your thoughts on The Age of Innocence?

April 2015 Blind Spot – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001_bannerAs far as film blind spot goes, this is perhaps one of the most glaring for me given its iconic status. Well, better late than never right? Forty seven years after its release, I finally get what the fuss is about. Now, I’m not saying I *get* the movie, mind you. In fact, it’s the kind of movie that is fun to read about afterwards. According to IMDb trivia, the film apparently prompted a large number of people to walk out from its premiere, including star Rock Hudson who said “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” Ahah, I can totally relate. Per IMDb, the film’s co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke once said, “If you understand ‘2001’ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” So I guess I don’t have to feel bad that the movie left me scratching my head.

SPOILER ALERT! Just in case some of you still hasn’t seen this yet, be mindful that I’ll be talking about some major plots in this post.

I guess I’m lucky that I was able to keep spoilers at bay in regards to this movie, as I had no idea there’s actually apes involved in this movie, and the Dawn of Man sequence was almost a half an hour long! I knew that the movie would be slow and there’d be long sequences with no dialog, so I’d imagine it’d be something like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, so I was prepared for that. In fact, I quite enjoyed watching the gorgeous imagery set to sweeping classical music (more on that later) and boy, what a visual treat it was.

2001_Apes_monolithI have to admit that I nearly fell asleep a few times as I was already so tired when I started watching it, so I had to stop after about an hour or so, and continued the next night. I don’t usually do this but I figured the film deserved to be seen with fresh eyes.

When the film’s over, my first reaction was ‘well I could see why this film was so beloved even four decades later.’ It’s not the most emotionally-gratifying film as I there’s really no character development, but visually speaking, the film truly set the bar for sci-fi and no wonder it’s been an inspiration for so many filmmakers since. Even other iconic sci-fi works like Blade Runner, Star Wars, Star Trek, all the way to recent ones like Interstellar have been inspired by Kubrick’s magnum opus. I mean, the ‘Star Gate’ sequence alone is so similar to the wormhole scenes in Interstellar. I read afterwards that that extended sequence of that funkadelic sequence was popular among young adults who love watching ’em when they’re high. Ahah, I bet that’s still true today.

2001_Hal9000There’s something so timeless about the production design, especially the HAL 9000 computer with its omnipresent red eye. Kubrick and Clarke made the right decision making it so simple, instead of going with a mobile robot they initially set out to do. I think it’d have looked more dated than the simple but ominous red eye. Despite its simplicity, it manages to be quite terrifying at times, especially during the time when Dave (Keir Dullea) was trying to get back into the main ship. The film isn’t an *acting* film per se, as the actors aren’t exactly given much to do, but I think Dullea did a good job nonetheless, and the scene of him trying to dismantle HAL is quite memorable. It’s a pretty suspenseful scene and Dullea conveyed the dread and terror very well.

It’s a testament that creating a certain atmosphere is crucial to depict genuine suspense and there’s certainly a horror-like vibe during the entire scene. I literally gasped when the LIFE FUNCTIONS CRITICAL lights came on… then followed by LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED in the scene where HAL systematically killed the rest of the ship’s crew in hibernation. It’s just one of the many minimalistic scenes that made such a huge impact in the film.

2001_Dave2001_Dave_disablingHalThe cryptic nature of the film, with its various metaphors and allegories, certainly sparked all kinds of theories. My hubby and I watched a two-part Youtube videos on the meaning of the monolith, which argues that the monolith is basically “an advanced television teaching machine.” It’s quite a fascinating argument and I’m sure there are others, but I really don’t want to go into that rabbit hole.

I have to mention the music here, which is crucial given there’s such few dialog in the film. I’ve heard that opening theme Thus Spoke Zarathustra soooo many times, as it’s so overused in popular culture that it’s become a cliché. But hearing it in the context of the opening sequence made me appreciate just how iconic it is. Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube (composed in mid 1800s) is also one of my favorite classical piece, which somehow fits the tone and feel of this film it’s as if it was made especially for this project.

2001_spaceshipSo what’s the verdict?

Well, I’m glad I finally saw this film. I didn’t fall in love with the film, I think it falls under the category of ‘films I appreciate but doesn’t quite love.’ I was bowled over by what Kubrick achieved in 1968 – he is a true visual artist with an exquisite eye for details. Nearly every frame is like a work of art and it still looks modern even by today’s standards. Yet it’s not an emotionally-engaging film, which to be fair is probably not what Kubrick intended it to be anyway, so it’s not something I’m eager to watch again. That said, I still give it a high rating because I do think it deserves its classic status and it’s a film that every film fan should see. It took me a while to get here, but I’m glad I finally did!

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The Blind Spot series was originally spearheaded by Ryan at The Matinee, and I was also inspired by Dan’s list at Public Transportation Snob.

2015BlindSpotCheck out my list of 2015 Blind Spot Films


What are your thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey? 

MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Unlikely Heroes (Schweizer Helden) + El Crítico (The Film Critic)

MSPIFF15reviewsUnlikelyHeroes_posterUnlikely Heroes (Schweizer Helden)

An uneven picture, Unlikely Heroes is about Sabine (Esther Gemsch), a middle-aged woman in the midst of a lengthy separation from her husband and devolving relationships with friends. She is emotionally unstable. But when she stumbles on a home for asylum seekers, she finds purpose in trying to introduce psychodrama, a form of improvisational acting meant to help people accept their past, to the residents. When the asylum seekers, her would be pupils, seem more interested in performing Schiller’s William Tell play, Sabine opts instead to direct the theatrical production.

Unlikely Heroes greatest merit? Most of the asylum seekers, both in terms of characterization and performance. Punishment (Komi Mizrajim Togbonou, award worthy) is fascinating. Ditto that for Elvis (Karim Rahoma, almost as good), Remzi (Nuroz Baz) and Bahar (Uygar Tamir).

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Unfortunately, this strength dovetails into Unlikely Heroes biggest misstep. Sabine isn’t as interesting as the supporting characters she teaches. She isn’t as emotionally complex. Her journey isn’t as emotionally rife. And her motivations are transparently thin to start, just as the ways they transform are transparently predictable.

This is doubly troubling because it leads to the film’s second biggest flaw. Because Sabine (the character, not the actor who plays her) cannot carry the picture’s emotional heft, Unlikely Heroes winds up being thematically preachy, despite its feel-good-story intentions.

All of which is a shame. With characters like Punishment, Elvis and the other asylum seekers, there is a great film hiding in Unlikely Heroes. We just don’t get to see all of it.

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El Crítico (The Film Critic)

TheCriticPosterI was immediately drawn to this Argentinian comedy as it’s a commentary of the state of Hollywood movies, the rom-com genre to be exact. Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd) is a film critic of a local newspaper, and right away we learn how weary he is of the current state of movies he has to watch day after day. He calls it the ‘maladie du cinema’ as he sees life as a big movie that he absolutely loathes.

I find the movie hilarious and engaging from start to finish, thanks to Rafael’s expressive performance. I’ve never seen him before but I enjoyed his deadpan comedy style and sarcastic humor. The dialog between him and his fellow film critics criticizing various movies are amusing because I find myself agreeing with them. Tellez’s teenage niece LOVES Hollywood rom-coms, and there’s also a hilarious scene where they watch clips of The Notebook, Jerry Maguire, Pretty Woman, etc. and Tellez pointing out all the clichéd formula of those movies.

Whilst desperately seeking for a new place to live, Tellez met a mysterious girl Sofia (Dolores Fonzi) who he thinks is trying to steal his dream apartment. An unexpected romance happens, much to his bafflement, and before he knows it, it’s as if his own life morphs into a movie he can’t stand. One of the funniest moments was when Sofia took him to an abandoned ship and she stood at the bow imitating Rose from Titanic, to which Tellez immediately quipped ‘Mon Dieu!’ (OMG) in horror.

ElCritico_stillsThe film is set mostly in Spanish with occasional French as Tellez thinks in his second language for some reason, which makes it more amusing. There are some silly moments and the subplot about this young director who takes offense to Tellez for lambasting his film. There’s a bit of suspense towards the end in relation to this scene but it feels more of an embellishment that doesn’t ultimately adds much to the story.

Despite those small quibbles, overall I was entertained by El Crítico. As a film blogger, I can somehow relate to Tellez and I find his curmudgeon attitude hilarious and even endearing. Apparently the film is a directorial debut from Hernán Gerschuny who also wrote the script. I’d say it’s a pretty darn good debut accomplished with a shoestring budget. I haven’t had a genuinely good laugh at the theater in a while, so it’s always nice when that happens. I also love the premise of a movie about the movie industry, and this is one comedy I wouldn’t mind watching again.

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Thoughts on any of these films?

MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Belle et Sébastien + The Keeping Room

MSPIFF15reviewsBelle et Sebastien

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Despite being sometimes sappy and overly safe, Belle et Sébastien still mostly succeeds, primarily because Sebastian (Felix Bossuet) and Belle (a dog) are captivatingly adorable. It helps that their bond of friendship is keenly developed, as well.

The film opens with a group of mountain men, including Cesar (Tcheky Karyo), Sebastian’s primary caretaker, hunting a beast they believe has been killing their farm animals. The beast turns out to be a now feral, recently abused dog, whom Sebastian quickly dubs Belle. The two take their time forming an affectionate bond but soon become inseparable. Meanwhile, a friend of Sebastian’s adopted family, Doctor Guillaume (Dimitri Storoge), is sheparding fugitive Jews through wintry mountains, taking them to safety in Switzerland, all while the local Nazis wreak havoc on the village.

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Eventually, of course, the two stories merge, which is good, because initially they are so tonally different that they feel mismatched. One is mostly lighthearted fair fit for younger audiences while the other is dark, obviously intended for older audiences. But writer/director Nicolas Vanier and his co-writers never immerse in the second narrative, instead opting to let it exist on the film’s fringes. As such, the World War II specific subplot is shorted, and the characters specific to it are underdeveloped (this is especially true of Angelina, played by Margaux Chatelier).

Still, despite these narrative flaws, Belle et Sébastien avoids failure, if only because the child lead and his canine friend remain captivating. So too does the relationship between Sebastian and Cesar, and later that between Cesar and Belle.  Moreover, the picture’s imagery is positively stunning. Vanier captilizes on his mountain setting in ways that always impress.

All of which is to say that Belle et Sébastien is imperfect, maybe even forgettable, but it still accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell a sweet story about a boy and his dog.

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The Keeping Room

“War is cruelty . . . The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” ~William T. Sherman

This quote opens The Keeping Room, a part home invasion, part relationship drama, part female empowerment, part anti-war film, and the picture’s plot, about which I will purposefully say little, sets out to prove it, from the opening to the conclusion. So it is we know the sort of movie we’re watching.

Tone is not director Daniel Barber and writer Julia Hart’s only success. So too is their stunning imagery.

And their investigation of people’s potential for cruelty. Moses (Sam Worthington, utterly terrific) does evil things, but he never feels evil. He feels like a person trapped in a system, doing things even he knows he shouldn’t. When he says, “I don’t know how to stop,” we believe him because Barber and Hart have so masterfully shown it to us.

TheKeepingRoom_stillsThe writer and director adeptly characterize Augusta (Brit Marling, every bit Worthington’s equal) and Mad (Muna Otaru, very good), as well. These are two complex women, both of whom we like even though we sometimes question them.

Barber and Hart capture Henry (Kyle Soller) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), less well, however. The former is an archetype, a terrible person who does terrible things because he’s terrible. Henry’s behavior is probably no more or less twisted than Moses’, but the filmmakers fail to nuance the former as well as they do the latter. Louise, too, is borderline archetypal, at least until the end of the picture. (Note: despite this flaw in characterization, when Steinfeld and Soller share the screen, they produce The Keeping Room’s most catching scene.)

The movie’s other notable flaw: pacing. The opening is overdrawn and the finale a little rushed, especially insofar as Louise comes alive in the end, transcending the ‘spoiled teenager’ archetype on which we spend so much time at the The Keeping Room’s onset.

Still, here the merits well outweigh the flaws. This film is worth viewing.

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Have you seen any of these films? Well, what do you think?

FlixChatter Review: Ex Machina

ExMachinaPosterThere have been a plethora of films about man and machine or man vs machine in Hollywood. From cult classics like Blade Runner, Terminator to most recent ones like Robot & Frank, Chappie, etc., clearly not all are created equal. I’d say that this Alex Garland‘s original story has some striking similarities to the 2013 tiny-budgeted British indie The Machine, given that the creator and the machine are the main key players of the film. However, Ex Machina explored the eternally-fascinating topic of ‘what it means to be human’ in a much deeper and more immersive way.

The film started out with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) being dropped by a chopper into this secluded estate of a billionaire scientist in the side of a Norwegian mountain. He’s supposed to spend a week with the CEO of a large internet search engine company, but other than that Caleb has no idea what’s in store for him. As it turns out, he’s invited to participate in a breakthrough experiment in testing artificial intelligence. After meeting the mysterious tech baron Nathan (Oscar Isaac), things just seem to be even more cryptic. I love the initial interaction between the two actors and the unpredictability and suspense of it all. First time director Alex Garland infused the scenes with a sense of appropriate eeriness, as well as a dose of humor that prevents the film from being too heavy handed or frigid.

ExMachina_Still3It’s when we meet the subject of the Turing test, a luminous female A.I. named Eva (Alicia Vikander), that things starts to get REALLY interesting. Even though Eva’s robotic parts are visible, unlike some other films where the droid looks fully human on the outside, she is as fetching as ever. It sparks intriguing questions about why Nathan created her with sensuality, with the ability to flirt and emote. The unhurried pace allows for a lot of reflective moments, thanks to the sharp and focused script by Alex Garland himself.

“One day the AIs are gonna look back on us the same way we look at fossils and skeletons in the plains of Africa” Are the arrival of droids and drones mean we’re on the verge of extinction? That seems far-fetched perhaps, but the way Garland made this film, this scenario seems almost entirely plausible. His idea of the future is ‘ten minutes from now’ and companies like Google or Apple are certainly capable of creating the future we see in this film even today.

The spirituality aspect, whether intended or not, is one of most thought-provoking aspect I’ve seen in a sci-fi film in a long time. Humans may think they can replicate ourselves and build something with *consciousness,* but is a soul something we can create? What these sci-fi films prove is the always-present and increasing desire of humans to become God.

ExMachina_Still1I’ve been a fan of Garland’s work as a screenwriter (especially 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go), so we know he’s a master storyteller. But I think he has a gift behind the camera as well, and perhaps because of his writer background, he’s more concerned about letting the story flow and immerse people into a certain realms, instead of bludgeoning us with action, action, action. Plus he’s got an International cast formed by three accomplished young actors to tell his story.

Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac has been churning out one fantastic performance after another. He’s truly one of the most fascinating actors working today and it’s such a joy watching him mature even more as a performer. The best scene of the film, and one of my favorite scenes of the year, is the dance scene that’s both unsettling but hilarious. Isaac certainly has screen presence to match his acting chops.

ExMachina_DanceScene Irish Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly captures the naive curiosity of Caleb, as well as the young man’s intelligence and vulnerability. He’s effortlessly likable and you immediately projects yourself into his character as he navigates into this new environment he’s thrown into. Isaac and Gleeson have a good rapport together, and the human relationships are just as intriguing as that between man & machine. In the key role of Eva, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander couldn’t be more perfect in the role. There’s a certain innocence and fragility about her, but yet you know she’s far more sly than you think.

The film is appropriately R-rated for the graphic nudity. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that most of the time, nudity in movies is unnecessary and gratuitous. But I have to say that it’s not the case here, it feels integral to the plot. For the most part, Ex Machina is a quiet, reflective film. It did veers into mystery thriller territory towards the end but it’s a natural progression of the story instead of a forced divergence. It’s definitely a great film to see on the big screen and be fully immersed in the story and the characters’ journey.

Despite the relatively low budget (under $15 mil), the production values are fantastic. From Nathan’s state-of-the-art estate and his lab where he builds these machines, as well as the mountain scenery, it’s a good looking film. I also love how atmospheric the film is, thanks to the cool, ethereal-sounding soundtrack and resplendent cinematography. But the most striking of all is the robotic look of Eva, which is both mechanical as well as organic, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. We’re as drawn to her as Caleb was in the film.

ExMachina_Still2But as evident in films like Elysium, visual flair alone does NOT make a movie. Ultimately what you remember is the story and how it affects you as you watch it, and this film certainly offers plenty for the senses. There are so many scenes that linger long after the end credits role, such as one where one of the characters has a moment of doubts about himself as a human. It’s got such a haunting quality about it that adds another layer of intrigue on the human/machine exploration. It’s further proof that one doesn’t need an astronomical budget or big stars to tell a compelling and memorable story. Dazzling, provocative and haunting… everything you’d expect from a futuristic sci-fi film. An outstanding directorial debut from Alex Garland, I’m curious what he’d tackle next, both as a writer AND as a director.

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Have you seen Ex Machina? Well, what do you think?

Everybody’s Chattin’ + Question of the Week: shameless tv/movie indulgence

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Happy almost-weekend peeps! Is it Friday yet? It’s been quite a hectic week at the office, rushing against deadlines and all that, but let’s not talk about work on the blog shall we? I mean this is supposed to be my escape!

I almost forgot doing the LINKS post but there have been some great posts from my fellow bloggers so I simply have to share ’em. Let’s start with lists, as who doesn’t love those?

Josh listed his top 50 films of 2010s so far, which has some awesome picks as well as recommendations.

LOVE this list idea from Chris on discovering new music by watching trailers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve watched the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. Well Keith broke down 5 phenomenal things about it.

Speaking of phenomenal, check out Margaret‘s recap of the latest Game of Thrones‘ episode (5×02)

Oh and have you seen Margaret‘s Black Swan/White Swan blogathon? Well, check out how you can participate and read Andrew‘s pick on the topic.

Speaking of blogathons, Wandering Through The Shelves‘ Weekly Blogathon’s topic is on Superhero Movies. I’m not participating this week, but I did make a list of Top 10 Favorite Scenes from Marvel Superhero Movies back in 2011. If I were to make it now, for sure I’d add a few from the two Captain America movies!

On to reviews…

Steven wrote up about Pink Floyd: The Wall

Stu reviewed Festen (The Celebration), a Danish drama from Thomas Vinterberg

Natalie reviewed Alan Rickman’s directorial debut A Little Chaos, starring his love interest in Sense & Sensibility Kate Winslet!

Last but not least, Michael shone the spotlight on a great opening title sequence: The Wild Bunch


My question of the week is really just an excuse to talk about my new obsession 😉 But hey, it’s my blog so why should talk about things I don’t really want to talk about, right? And frankly, right now my mind’s been preoccupied with one person…

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Suffice to say I’ve been bingeing on all things Stanley Weber… but it’s even more agonizing as there are so few of his work out there. Much like most of my crushes in the past, Stanley did a lot of stage work in his hometown Paris. Oh what I would give to see him LIVE in the flesh in Anna Christie with Mélanie Thierry.

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In any case, in between MSPIFF and other screenings, I’ve been sneaking time to watch Not Another Happy Ending and the StudioCanal’s BORGIA: Faith and Fear, both are on Netflix if you’re so inclined to check ’em out. Ladies be warned, you just might soon be obsessing over this c’est magnifique Frenchman 😉


Speaking of BORGIA, I simply have to include this insightful post from a historian comparing the two shows on the infamous Borgia family: StudioCanal’s BORGIA: Faith & Fear & Showtime’s The Borgias. This is the blog author’s conclusion: “Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.”

 


So tell me… what’s been your shameless TV/movie indulgences of late? Come on, fess up!

MSPIFF 2015 Film Spotlight: The Center – Interview with filmmaker Charlie Griak & lead actor Matt Cici

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One of the most exciting parts of MSPIFF 2015 are the regional premieres of various films, and this one has a personal connection to the city.

Produced by Jonathan Demme (director of Silence of the Lamb, Philadelphia, Beloved) and shot locally in St Paul, Charlie Griak’s atmospheric debut focuses on a vulnerable young man who falls into the trap of a cult-like group. Ryan is a recent college grad searching not only for a job but also for a meaning in life. When he comes across a self-help organization, simply known as The Center, with a charismatic leader, Ryan seems to have found what he has been looking for.

The Center is a tense and surreal portrait of the dangerous nature of groupthink.

I had the pleasure of interviewing The Center‘s lead actor Matt Cici last year when he premiered his feature film debut Lambent Fuse right here at MSPIFF. It’s awesome that he’s back in yet another regional premiere, albeit in a different role, as a lead actor this time instead of in the directing chair.

The Center‘s film director Charlie Griak is an accomplished visual artist who has been working professionally as a freelance illustrator, storyboard artist, and animator since 1998. He is the creator of the short animated film Fever, an eight-minute narrative made up of over 4000 of his hand drawn illustrations. It earned a screenings in The Palm Spring International Festival of Short Films, The Seattle International Film Festival and The Raindance Film Festival in London. THE CENTER is Griak’s live action directorial debut.

Today we have an interview with both Matt and Cici about the film, thanks to both for the wonderful opportunity!

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Charlie Griak directing on set

Questions for Charlie:

1. How did you come up w/ the concept about a cult? Is there a personal connection or is it something else that inspire you to write about this cautionary tale?

I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics— whether in a workplace, at a school, or even in a family — so I thought that a movie about a cult would be an interesting place to explore these ideas. Without realizing I was doing it, I’ve been researching the topic for years and years.

This research has led to a lot of great personal revelations. Maybe the biggest thing I take away from it — and I hope it comes through in the movie — is that almost any group can have cult-like aspects. Often our beliefs and value systems are given to us from the outside rather than decided upon from within. I think this a valuable concept to explore as an artist.

2. Based on the press release, this project took over six year to make, so what’s the biggest challenge to bring this film to life?

Whenever you are tackling a large creative project, you need to be flexible and open-minded enough to find creative solutions to the obstacles that inevitably arises. Coupled with that, filmmaking requires a strong discipline from the filmmaker to keep going when times are tough. So there is a great balancing act that an independent filmmaker needs to perform — between great flexibility and great tenacity. So for me, that was always the biggest challenge — finding the right balance between those two seemingly contradictory requirements.

3. Your background as a storyboard artist/animator, how does your experience in the business assist you in the filming process?

Working as a storyboard artist and animator really instilled in me the importance of planning. In animation, planning is especially important because the process itself is so laborious. Ideally, you don’t draw any extra “footage” in animation. You have the edit in mind, down to the exact frame, before you finalize a single image. Having spent years working that way, it felt very natural to extensively pre-visualize The Center in storyboards before shooting anything.

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4. There is a shot of Ryan from below where he’s at a skyway looking out into the street – you use that shot several times in the film. Is there a significance to that scene in particular or you just like the aesthetic of the shot itself?

I’ve spent a lot of time working for various companies in downtown Minneapolis and found myself watching the activity of the city from the skyways whenever I needed to get away and think. It always felt like it was a unique place — somewhat separated from the action of the city, but also right in the middle of it.

So I put Ryan in the skyways at several times in the film because I felt the visual elements of the location expressed his inner state of mind. He is trapped behind glass, very close to the people he wants to connect with but also unable to reach them. The skyways felt like metaphor for his life. I like trying to find a realistic location (one that logically makes sense to the film’s story) that also visually expresses the inner world of the characters involved. Hopefully that came through in those shots.

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5. Would you share what’s a day in the life is like during filming? Especially during the intense meetings with the group leader Vincent?

I was so excited to be on set that I would jump out of bed and rush to our location before I would even eat breakfast. I couldn’t wait to start filming each day. In fact, for the first day of shooting, I was so excited that I think I showed up over 5 hours early! It really was a dream come true to actually get to make a movie, so I tried to soak up every second of it.

Once the day would officially begin, things moved very quickly. We had a finite time to shoot at each location so we had our schedule figured out in 15 minutes increments and we decided early on that we would never go over a 12 hour day if at all possible. That might sound a little rigid or contrary to the creative process, but I believe that having such a solid structure actually gave our team a lot of confidence during the production. Being organized created a safe and dependable environment for everyone to be at their best — creative, spontaneous and also willing to be vulnerable.

We had two local producers, Annie and Judd Einan, who did an amazing job of organizing and managing the production. A lot of the cast and crew told me that it was the best set they had ever worked on, and I think Annie and Judd deserve a huge amount of credit for that. I had seen their short film ”Blindspot” and was thoroughly impressed by what they had created. I was very lucky that they were interested in producing The Center.

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6. Lastly, how did Jonathan Demme come to be involved as executive producer?

I feel so incredibly lucky to have Jonathan Demme on board as the film’s executive producer. He is one of my personal heroes as both a filmmaker and as a person.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be selected by Jonathan and Curious Pictures in NY to create imagery for an animated feature film that they were developing. As the project was being developed, Jonathan would send me parts of the script and I would him send him illustrations and animations. We went back and forth in this way for several years and along the way he and I developed a great collaborative partnership and a great friendship.

In 2012, I asked Jonathan if I could share my rough-cut of “The Center” with him. He was very excited to watch the film and really liked what he saw. Soon after, he set up an artist residency for me in Pleasantville, NY at The Jacob Burns Film Center where he and I worked with JBFC Editor Thom O’Connor to create the final edit of film.

Question for either Matt or Charlie: What would you like the audience to come away from watching this film?

I hope the film generates a lot of discussion in the audience about cults, human behavior, belief systems and group dynamics. I think there is no bigger compliment than hearing that my film made someone “think”.

But beyond simply the topic, I hope that the audience walks away feeling that were able to connect with the film and its characters. Because ultimately I think that is why audiences see films and why filmmakers make films — to connect with one another.


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Questions for Matt:

1. How did you get involved with the project? Did you know Charlie or any of the producers before this film?

The Center was my first experience with Charlie and the rest of the team. I knew of Annie Einan, one of our producers/actors, from when she had expressed interest in my film, Lambent Fuse, but we hadn’t worked together yet.

This is the first feature film I’ve worked on as an actor. Primarily, I work as a crew member on films: directing/writing/editing and crewing on other films in various roles from 1st Assistant Director (AD) to Location Manager.

I found out about The Center in a most perfect time in my life:
I had just driven eight hours straight from South Dakota after a somewhat exhausting feature film production, where I served as 1st AD. Right when I got home I opened my Mac, brought up Facebook, and saw a post from Annie Einan mentioning they were casting for a feature film. I thought to myself, I wasn’t really in the mood to crew something at that moment, so I read on.

The part of Ryan jumped out to me immediately. But, I kept reading since I wasn’t sure if it jumped out to me only because it was the lead role. There was something about the way he was described that intrigued me. He was inspiring and depressing at the same time. It just sounded like someone I could connect with at that time. So, I sent a headshot and my résumé with a note mentioning I’d like to crew if they felt that would be a better fit.

Before showing up I shaved my head because I had sported a mohawk for the film I did in South Dakota. We all did it as a fun, bonding thing. I was a bit nervous that my shaved head, not looking anything like my headshot, would not play in my favor at the audition, especially when they asked me to take off a beanie I had worn to cover it up. But, I think it’s safe to say it didn’t.

Less than a week later, I received a call back audition, and we worked hard from that point forward to create Ryan together. They challenged me in so many wonderful ways, and the team was one happy unit. It was awesome!

And to think, had I not driven home at that exact moment, had I not opened my computer at that exact moment, had I not gone to Facebook at that exact moment, I would have never found this film. I wasn’t actively looking for a role to play; it found me, and as cheesy as that sounds, I’m so happy it did.

2. How did you approach this role of Ryan with his vulnerability as well as that ‘seeker’ aspect of this character?

It was something I connected with immediately when reading the audition character description. I approached it as attributes that also lived inside me. I felt really close to Ryan at the time of shooting. He was disconnected from the world. I think we all have had that feeling or understand “not fitting in.” There was a point in each of our lives when we just want to know what to do next. “Who should we be?” Once you’ve worked that out, you’ll need to figure out how do become that person. Ryan is looking for those answers too.

With acting, you’re being analyzed on every breath and every twitch. Each one of them matters. In film, there cannot be a wasted frame. Those moments matter to the people watching, but they matter even more to the character you’re playing. You, as an actor, become vulnerable to everyone around you: the film crew, the other talent, and the audience who will eventually watch the film. As people, we attempt to put on our best faces, and with each character they are doing the same.

On top of being vulnerable, it’s hard for him to find support at work and at home. He had nobody to turn to. At the time, I was in between places, and had just come off an exhausting film shoot. I was premiering a near-rough cut of my feature film at a festival. So, there was a mixture of amazing and tough. Though, I did have people that supported me. To connect more with Ryan, I would start separating myself from society. I’d go for long runs and bike rides where I’d be stuck with only my thoughts. Whatever I was doing during the day, I would imagine myself as Ryan: isolated, lost, and lacking confidence. Personally, it made me appreciate those around me so much more, but it was also a feeling that I’ll never forget, and I worked hard to show that in the film.

3. How much does your experience as a filmmaker help you as an actor?

Oh, I feel it definitely shaped the way I approached this film, and it’s always helpful to cross-train in the field of cinema. I understood the production aspects, from script to screen, as I was in the final stages of editing my first feature film when we started working on The Center. It makes you look at a script with so much more care knowing how many long nights Charlie, Wendy, and his circle of support went through to craft it (a minimum of 2 years). To know they had been working on such detailed pre-production plans before I found out about the project made me appreciate and work diligently to perfect each moment they gave me. Charlie and his team put on one of the most wonderful productions one could wish to be a part of.

It helped during each take, knowing what to give for the director and audience, but also some range for the editor. They’re the ones who eventually craft the story into what it’s going to be. A story changes dramatically from thought to paper and paper to film before the editor sees the story unfold. Then, he/she once again retells the story.

I feel that I’ve become a better filmmaker by taking on several different roles.

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4. What’s your favorite scene to shoot from this film? Do you prefer the more intense or quieter moment of a scene?

I am not sure if my answer would change for another film, but I think I enjoyed the quieter moments more. There was always somewhere to go inside Ryan’s head. He was thinking constantly, and it was a lot of fun diving into his life. He did a lot of writing too, and I remember worrying a bit about what exactly I would write about. For some reason though, I couldn’t stop my pencil. Ryan was a very interesting person to play.

Question for either Matt or Charlie: What would you like the audience to come away from watching this film?

There are so many personal stories and experiences that came from this film for us and for our viewers. I’ve had people stop me afterward and share their experiences of having a family member or friend involved in a self-help group, cult, or cult-like group and what that was like for them and how that affected their lives. We are people. We care. If The Center can bring hope to someone or educate another, then it’s more than we could have ever asked for. Film is effective because it’s universal. It’s an art of storytelling, something we’ve been doing forever as beings on this planet; we’ve just found different ways to do it. I hope we can all see a film and talk about it. I will be impressed by everything that comes from this and thankful for the many that look to share these nights with us.


For more info: check out The Center’s official website

Trailer:


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A day in the life of filming ‘The Center’
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Matt (far left) and Charlie (far right) at Cinequest

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Get your tickets to the screenings of The Center!

Wed, Apr 22 7:20 PM
Fri, Apr 24 10:00 PM

Hope you enjoy the interview! What are your thoughts about The Center?

Weekend Roundup: Ex Machina, more Daredevil, BORGIA (2011) & a new obsession

I thought I’d take a bit of a break from MSPIFF to give you a bit of a rundown of how last week’s been going so far, which is perhaps one of my favorite weeks so far in terms of movie-viewing.

In case you’re wondering what those three movies are… well, I’ve reviewed two of them: Clouds of Sils Maria, Girlhood and the third one is Ex Machina, which turned out to be even better than I expected.

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It’s also cool to have Ex Machina‘s director Alex Garland actually answered my question hours before I saw the screening, thanks to IMDb’s Twitter Q@A using the hashtag #ExMachinaChat.

This is Garland’s directorial debut and it’s certainly one of the best sci-fis dealing with the ‘what does it mean to be human’ theme. Visually it looks cool and the story is genuinely thought-provoking. I’ll review that when MSPIFF is over, but if you haven’t seen it yet, l can’t recommend it enough!


I also saw more episodes of Netflix’s Daredevil, we only have two more episodes to go and the waiting for second season will be agonizing! Man, episode 10 and 11 were especially phenomenal. I love the Nelson vs Murdock one as it showed the back story of how they’ve become friends since becoming room mates in law school. It’s an emotionally-gratifying and revelatory episode whilst the action scene continues to be as phenomenal as ever.

Daredevil_ep10_11The spirituality aspect of Matt Murdock’s story is intriguing as it’s perhaps the first superhero who’s faith is integral in his role and the show doesn’t shy away from it. I find the dialog between Matt and his priest/personal confidant and their discussion about whether the devil truly walks amongst earth fascinating and insightful in terms of the protagonist’s motivations. Nice to see Claire (Rosario Dawson) making an appearance again in episode 11: The Path of the Righteous. I’ve always found Charlie Cox to be a gorgeous Brit but he looks REALLY good on this show, and he’s clearly worked out a lot for this role, ehm. I LOVE Claire’s comment about seeing Matt shirtless again. Amen to that, sista 😉


Speaking of REALLY gorgeous man… I have a new obsession… some of you on Twitter might’ve noticed it 😉 It happened almost instantly when I saw Not Another Happy Ending precisely two weeks ago and ever since then I have watched that Scottish rom-com over a dozen times, I think that’s a record!

NotAnotherHappyEnding_CafeNotAnotherHappyEnding_finaleI will have to do a Stanley Weber appreciation post at some point, he’s the first French actor I’ve ever had a massive crush on … as you know I almost always go for the Brits. But the second I beheld his c’est magnifique physique (and THAT irresistible wavy hair!) and heard him speak, I was a goner [le sigh] My penchant for the criminally-underrated AND the unjustifiably-obscure actors continues… why hasn’t Hollywood discover him yet? Come on!!!

Ehm, now that I got that out of the way …. inspired by Margaret’s awesome list post of cinematic/TV gems she saw because of her actor’s crushes, I just might have to do one of my own. One of those gems is definitely this Canal+ production of BORGIA, not to be confused with Showtime’s The Borgias that’s also about the notorious Italian family in the 15th and 16th century. This is the one created by Tom Fontana (Homicide, HBO’s Oz) with John Doman as Rodrigo Borgia.

BORGIA_Canal+BORGIA_JuanBorgiaStanley plays one of Rodrigo’s son, Juan. I’ve only seen four episodes so far and oh boy, Juan Borgia is one naughty, naughty boy. Basically his character is a psychopath and a sexual predator, which is completely different role from what I’ve seen him in Not Another Happy Ending. The entire BORGIA clan is morally bankrupt all around, and the actors portray them VERY well. The most infamous chapter of the history of the Catholic church certainly made for some fascinating historical drama.


What I’m looking forward to this week:

WaterDivinerScreeningBeen waiting to see Russell Crowe’s directorial debut for ages.
I first posted the trailer here over a year ago!


So that’s what I’ve been watching & obsessing about. What about you?

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MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Bogowie (Gods) + To Life! + A Brilliant Young Mind (X Plus Y)

MSPIFF15reviewsGods (Bogowie)

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A thrilling biopic about a 1980s era cardiologist bringing heart transplants to Poland, Gods is often riveting. Start with director Lukasz Palkowski’s opening, when he montages the fallout from the first ever (failed) attempt by a Polish doctor to transplant a heart from one patient to another. Here the director immediately and powerfully sets tone.

After the terrific opening montage, Palkowski settles into a more traditional biopic, focusing on protagonist Zbigniew Religa (Tomas Kotz), first as he operates to save a life, and then as he navigates the political realities of trying to be progressive in a country that doesn’t invite the innovations he embraces. Impressively, even though we immediately know the picture’s resolution, Palkowski and writer Krzystztof Rak, make the story tautly suspenseful, filled with requisite moments of joy and other moments of equal sorrow.

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Partially, Palkowski and Rak are successful because they wisely limit Gods’ purview to a relatively short time span (just several years). Moreover, they do not herofy Religa; they make him a multi-faceted, real human being. Here Religa is brilliant, effective and determined to help, but he is also quick-tempered, emotionally withdrawn, manipulative, sometimes cruel, and a glory-hound. His complexity makes him interesting. It also means we relate to him.

Unfortunately, the writer and director barely develop any of the minor characters. The doctors who join Religa’s clinic are interchangeable ciphers. Ditto that for other medical professionals who oppose the protagonist. Even Religa’s wife, who could have been a marvelous character, is almost personality-less. In other words, we know Religa intimately, but we barely know anyone else here, a fact that limits the movie’s impact, at least to some degree.

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To Life! (Auf Das Lieben)

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Odd couples often form the basis for compelling narrative, and the protagonists of To Life!, a German film, are an example thereof. Ruth (Hannelore Elsner) and Jonas (Max Riemelt) have little in common, except that both are in crisis and both are lonely. When Ruth is evicted from her flat and her possessions are seized, Jonas is one of the men the bank has move her things into a smaller residence. Ruth is immediately interested in Jonas, if only because he closely resembles a man she once knew well, and he, being a good Samaritan, offers to perform a favor for her. When the task proves more complicated than Jonas expects, he returns to Ruth’s residence, only to find she has attempted suicide. So begins a relationship drama that shows us how Ruth copes with depression while Jonas lives through physical illness.

And it is a good drama, indeed. Both Elsner and Riemelt are terrific. Plus, writer Thorston Wettcke and director Uwe Janson craft Ruth and Jonas as deeply complex and equally compelling people. Most of the other characters are minor enough that sparse development doesn’t prove a flaw.

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Moreover, Janson edits his film such that transitions from the modern day to an earlier period in Ruth’s life are always seamless and engrossing. Ditto that for the ways he foreshadows Jonas’ condition, ensuring we know what’s coming long before anyone speaks of it.

To Life’s!, biggest issue is its ending. While Ruth’s story is cleverly completed, Jonas’ feels unfinished and thereby a little emotionally flat. It is not a major issue, however, and so, in the end, To Life! succeeds.

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A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X Plus Y)

XPlusYposterA heartwarming little indie drama about a math genius with Autism, but one doesn’t have to know much about the subject to appreciate it. For those like me who’s not familiar with Autism, it’s a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.

‘I think I see the world differently to others’ Nathan (Asa Butterfield) says early in the film and we follow his journey from his childhood marked by personal tragedy to being chosen to compete on the British team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. The film did a wonderful job in giving us a glimpse into what it’s like growing up with Autism, from the point of view of the person with the disorder as well as those close to him, especially his mother. Nathan’s relationship with his mother is heartbreaking and you truly feel for both sides. The flashbacks of Nathan’s early life with his beloved dad is interspersed throughout that helps us see why Nathan behaves the way he does, but it doesn’t overwhelm or drags the film.

A large part of the film takes place in Taipei, which gives this film a richer International flair as the characters explore a different culture halfway being paired up with a student from that region. The young romance aspect doesn’t work quite as well at times as I feel that the dialog is a bit too corny and over-sentimental for my liking. It could be due to the fact that Jo Yang, the actress playing Nathan’s friend/love interest Zhang Mei, has never acted before this film. Some of the scenes between Nathan and the rest of his Math teams are also uneven, there are parts that work and some that I think miss the mark.

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Thankfully they didn’t derail the film and the mostly British supporting cast are excellent. I really like Rafe Spall as Nathan’s teacher who also deals with a debilitating disease. His scenes with Butterfield are my favorite parts of the film because they feel so natural, as well as genuinely funny and heartfelt. There’s a subplot of a little romance between him and Nathan’s mother played by Sally Hawkins that could’ve been irksome if it’s not handled well, but the actors made me care about their characters. There’s also Eddie Marsan as the lead Math teacher, I seem to always see him playing a henchman or some lowlife bad guy so nice to see him play a ‘normal’ character for once.

The star here is truly Asa Butterfield who at 18 is surely one of the brightest young actors working today. There’s a certain sensitivity and earnest-ness about him that makes you sympathize with him right away, but I think he’s versatile enough where he could also play someone truly dark and conflicted. This is the first film I’ve seen him in since HUGO in 2011 and he’s certainly developed into a compelling lead actor. He’s truly believable in the role due to his ability to express his emotion without any words being spoken. Whilst watching this he reminds me a lot of Cillian Murphy!

This is Morgan Matthew‘s first feature film debut after doing mostly documentaries. All things considered, it’s an impressive debut as he infuses the film with a nice mix of drama and humor. I enjoy the cinematography and music, it’s beautiful without overwhelming the story. The ending is a bit predictable, but there’s one emotionally-engaging scene between Nathan & his mother that really tugs my heartstrings. This is more than just a film about Autism or about Math, as much as The Theory of Everything is more about the relationships in the protagonist’s life that defines that person more than the circumstance one might find him/herself in. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for a delightful family drama that will make you see your own life and life’s priorities in a whole new light.

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Thoughts on any of these films?