Well May turns out to be quite a busy movie watching month! Surprising since I only went to one press screening all month (Tomorrowland). I am looking forward to quite a few screenings in June: Spy (this Tuesday!), Inside Out, Jurassic Worldand Terminator Genisys. I REALLY want to see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but that’ll be three screenings back-to-back in a week so not sure I can fit that one in.
After seeing the stellar Mad Max: Fury Road, my hubby and I saw The Road Warrior (1981)this weekend and we loved it! I think I’ve seen it years ago when I was a wee kid but I could remember much of the plot so it felt like new to me. Clearly the Mad Max franchise is George Miller‘s magnum opus and even though it was made over 3 decades ago, it still has a certain timeless quality about it and the action set pieces are fantastic despite the limited budget compared to this latest one. I’d rank Road Warrior as high as Fury Road, though certainly the Furiosa story adds a great deal of emotional depth to the film. But hey, 25-year-old Mel Gibson was pretty damn hot in his prime 😉
Not Another Happy Ending (2013)
Last Night (2010)
Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)
[Belated] Top 3 Picks from MSPIFF 2015
It’s a month late but I thought I’d still post my friend Josh’s and my top 3 picks from MSPIFF as some of the films are now available to rent on VOD.
Josh’s Top 3
3: The Secrets of War A rushed ending notwithstanding, The Secrets of War is quite good. All three child actors are solid to excellent; the thematic and dramatic heft of the narrative carry the film; and the picture’s sense of period is terrific. That there are some deeply moving moments interspersed throughout helps, as well.
2: The Keeping Room Powered by strong performances from Brit Marling, Sam Worthington, and Muna Otaru, The Keeping Room fuses multiple genres well. At times, director Daniel Barber and writer Julia Hart make this dark civil war film suspenseful; at other times frightening; and at other times emotionally rife. Of course, it also helps that Barber’s visual aesthetics are a feast for viewers’ eyes.
1: The Connection The Connection overcomes a predictable plot by depicting complex characters. It also capitalizes on a perfect ending that captures proper thematic heft at the same time it fittingly ends the characters’ paths. Terrific performances from Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lelouche, and Celine Sallette make this a film worth seeing, as well.
Ruth’s Top 3
3: El Critico I enjoyed this one immensely! Being a film blogger, I definitely identified with the protagonist, and I totally share his scorn for most Hollywood rom-coms. Definitely worth your time when this movie is available to rent.
2: Clouds of Sils Maria Seems tradition that I see a Juliette Binoche movie at MSPIFF and this is the best one yet! She came up with the premise of the film and director Olivier Assayas did a wonderful job penning the script and made the story come to life. Both miss Binoche and Kristen Stewart are tremendous here and the film work largely due to their performances.
1: Girlhood I rewatched parts of this French drama now that it’s on Netflix and I absolutely adore this film. Thanks to this film I discovered the lovely Karidja Touré in her mesmerizing acting debut. No doubt one of the best and emotionally-compelling coming-of-age film I’ve seen in some time.
Movie of the Month
I’ve been wanting to see What We Do in the Shadows ever since I saw the hilarious trailer months ago. Well this New Zealand mockumentary had me in stitches, it’s as hysterical as I had hoped and then some. If you’re a fan of vampire/werewolf movies, or just great comedies in general, I can’t recommend this enough. It pokes fun of the classic horror genre, but in a way it’s an homage to it at the same time. I sure wish they’re making a sequel of this as I would watch it in a heartbeat!
So that’s my May recap. What’s YOUR fave movie(s) you saw this month? …
Whoah, April’s been a freakishly busy month thanks to MSPIFF! Check out the banner below to check out our reviews from the Minneapolis/St Paul Film Festival, I have this image widget on my blog sidebar for easy access as well. I’ll have my MSPIFF recap next week as well as my and Josh’s picks top three movie picks.
I’m excluding MSPIFF films here as I’m going to do a separate recap. So this was an easy choice,Ex Machina is simply an excellent sci-fi… well, an excellent film in general.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was the last film I saw in April, and though there are some fun moments like the attempt to lift Mjölnir scene, overall it’s pretty forgettable. I don’t know when I’ll have time to review this movie but let’s just say I agree with Kenneth Turan I heard on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning: “Age of Ultron is made for the ‘instant gratification’ culture… It disappears without a trace as soon as it’s consumed.” Yep, that pretty much sums up my sentiment.
What I look forward to in May
It’ll be a fun weekend at Mpls Comic-Con starting tomorrow! Full programming all day Saturday, these are some of the panels I’ll definitely take part in:
11:30-12:15 – WETA workshop: character creation through prosthetics, hair & make up
2:00-2:45 – No “bones” about it: Karl Urban
4:00–4:45 – The truth is out there: Gillian Anderson
My hubby and I got tickets to attend this quickly sold-out lecture at Walker Art Center with Christopher Nolan! I sure hope there’ll be a Q&A segment at the end!
In celebration of 25 years of Walker Dialogues, the Walker presents acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, one of the most innovative directors working today, in discussion with Variety chief film critic Scott Foundas. The lecture is followed by a nine-film retrospective May 7–24, 2015.
Whew, so that’s my April recap. What’s YOUR fave movie(s) you saw in April? …
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).
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.
El Crítico (The Film Critic)
I 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.
The 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.
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.
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 Sébastienavoids 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.
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.
The 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’smost 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.
Have you seen any of these films? Well, what do you think?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To Life! (Auf Das Lieben)
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.
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.
A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X Plus Y)
A 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.
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.
At first glance, the film sounds like another commentary on the state of the entertainment industry. But it’s a rarity to see a complex female character at the center of it, and the film benefited from three excellent performances by Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz. An unlikely trio to be sure, yet each brings such authenticity to their character and they keep the film grounded despite the sometimes aimless wandering of Olivier Assayas‘ direction.
Binoche plays an international film star Maria Enders who’s at the peak of her career. She reluctantly accepts a role in a revival play, Maloja Snake, that made her famous twenty years earlier. Back then she played the role of Sigrid, a young girl who has an intense but eventually catastrophic with her much older female boss, Helena. Of course this time Maria’s asked to play Helena, which brings some sort of internal crisis as she grapples with the dark themes of the play, as well as the issue of aging and the shift of entertainment landscape in general. The dialog between Binoche and Stewart who plays her dedicated personal assistant Valentine are revelatory and amusing, I enjoy the honesty and frankness of their relationship. Val seems to understand Maria more than she’s given credit for, and despite their sometimes prickly banters, they obviously have a strong bond together.
Some have compared the story to Birdman and All About Eve and they do share similar themes, but there’s enough uniqueness in the protagonist’s journey and relationship. Moretz’s character Jo-Ann, a Lindsay-Lohan type starlet who’s talented but self-destructive is fascinating, as you could say that it resembles Stewart who was quite the tabloid fodder during her Twilight years. During a rather hilarious conversation where Val’s trying to convince Maria that there’s more to Jo-Ann and her seemingly shallow sci-fi character, I couldn’t help but think of Stewart herself. This could very well be Stewart’s answer to the naysayers (me included) that she could act, that she’s more than just a ball of nerves who can’t stop fidgeting. I have to say that she succeeded with this role and she earned her groundbreaking César award.
I read on IMDb that the film’s premise was Binoche’s idea, she pitched that to writer/director Olivier Assayas and he wrote a script with the idea. So no wonder Binoche was perfect in the role of Maria and no doubt it’s a character the international film star herself could relate to. Even at 51, she’s still as stunning as her much younger co-stars. There’s a certain self-assuredness as well as raw vulnerability in Maria that Binoche captured perfectly. She’s frustrating at times but never irritating, at least not to me. There are also some humorous moments when she googled Jo-Ann and was shocked/amused by all her shenanigans captured by paparazzi.
The film is shot 35-mm film and it’s simply stunning. It can practically serves as a travel video to the Swiss Alps, especially the resort town St Moritz. The Maloja Snake refers to the thick white low-lying cloud formation that *slithers* its way along the mountainsides and it’s captured beautifully on screen. The classically-tinged score is lovely too, it’s definitely the kind of music I enjoy and it fits the mood and tone of the film well. I’m really glad I saw this on the big screen and it’s become one of my favorites of the year. There are some slow moments and the ending dragged on a bit, but for the most part I was quite engrossed in the story. It’s rare to see such a well-developed, female-centric dramas these days, so kudos to Assayas for writing/directing one that also feels authentic. But the stars truly belong to both Binoche and Stewart, especially the latter who’s able to convince me that she’s an actress worth writing about.
Have you seen Clouds of Sils Maria? Well, what did you think?