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Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’ Review

Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’ Review

Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’ Review

Noah Baumbach broke into filmgoing consciousness by co-writing projects with the newly Oscar-nominated Wes Anderson. He contributed to The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox while also directing the well-received Squid and the Whale and the under the radar Greenberg, also with Stiller in a lead role. In While We’re Young, Baumbach further pushes down familiar territory with a mid-forties couple (Stiller and Watts) caught in challenging times since they don’t have children.

Their relationships with other couples their own age, primarily their close friends including MC Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys, are centered around their kids, which leads them into uncharted territory. When a young couple (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver) enters their world, they rediscover some of the spark seemingly missing from their relationship.

Stiller and Watts find the fountain of forced youth in 'While We're Young.'

Stiller and Watts find the fountain of forced youth in ‘While We’re Young.’

What Baumbach does well is have us laugh at ourselves. The interplay between the younger and older couples contains the most interesting moments, especially when it comes to the laughs. Driver sparkles as a wanna be documentarian, the same field Stiller is in, and Watts (particularly in a hip-hop dance class) and Stiller (in his usual just off-kilter style) gain the gut punch guffaws.

The message behind the story is a solid one, but it gives way to an all-too predictable ending which in many ways is the antithesis of the whole film in the first place. How we get there loses steam about halfway through as a plot twist if you will interrupts the feeling of an otherwise strong independent film. While We’re Young is best for those a bit older but in the end doesn’t quite carry out the promise of its premise to its fullest. Still, its worth seeing for those with an eye on thought provoking cinema.

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‘The Imitation Game’ Review: Movie Imitates What Academy Loves

‘The Imitation Game’ Review: Movie Imitates What Academy Loves

‘The Imitation Game’ Review: Movie Imitates What Academy Loves

The Imitation Game is about Alan Turing, the man who developed the world’s first computer. He was an outcast, a genius, a social misfit and a closeted homosexual at a time when the truth of his sexual preferences would in no way be acceptable. Turing (embodied well by Benedict Cumberbatch) applies for a job with the military during WWII hoping to help crack an Enigma code machine from the Nazi-Germans which relays their missions and attacking desires. If the machine can be hacked and the codes deciphered, then the war could be won.

Turing, however, is the least type of candidate that the military desires. He’s flippant, has no political aspirations and is only there for the challenge. He manages to land the gig, agitate his superiors by gaining control of the team in place and launches into his scheme alone – while the team works on their own operatives – attempting to design a computer to Enigma’s codes. The Imitation Game is a double or triple layered title, meaning someone is imitating something, someone, etc.

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Turing (Cumberbatch) and crew work to screw the Nazi’s over.

The film focuses on two eras a decade apart, Turing in present day (1951) and a decade earlier working for MI6 in the war. We don’t learn until later what the modern day Turing looks like compared to the earlier man working against Enigma. Game allows for Turing to meet a woman (Keira Knightley), have a few laughs and go about his business. The threats lie in his ability to keep his sexuality a secret and keep his job. Turing must maneuver his way through a world which doesn’t quite jive with him, a feeling not unfamiliar to many of us, no doubt.

That is where Director Morten Tyldum’s Game suffers. His 2011 thriller Headhunters (shot in his native language) is superior and more entertaining in almost every way. Here, for Hollywood, he dances around the fringes of everything. We are able to enjoy the drama unfolding on screen enough, but the stakes don’t seem particularly heightened. The war is happening, but is only a backdrop in the story at most. His sexual feelings are probably given proper weight, but most of that is shown via flashbacks with a boy he “loved” as a youngster. Thus, despite strong performances and a solid enough film, The Imitation Game simply imitates a better movie. It’s the type of film that wins over the often snooty Academy, but won’t win over the hearts of those who care about movies. That is another area, I suppose, in which it is simply an imitation of something more meaningful and tangible. It’s sufficient but not transcendent filmmaking, so give Cumberbatch his props, but that’s where it stops.

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Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

A Most Violent Year begins with a driver for Abel Morales’ (Oscar Isaac) Standard Oil Co. being robbed of his truck for fuel and beaten to the point of a broken jaw. This has been a frequent occurrence for Standard, leaving Abel to ponder whether he can continue to play it straight in a corrupt New York in 1981. With the mob, law enforcement and even his own wife (Jessica Chastain) serving as potential rivals to his methods, Abel may have to stand alone while risking his entire savings in trying to close the most important deal of his career in the next month.

Writer-director JC Chandor brings Year to life by placing a good guy in a nefarious environment. Abel tries to buy a property he can’t afford that is critical for Standard’s expansion while balancing a life in complete chaos. The violence is as much inner as outer for him. He must track down the money he needs and discover why his company and family are being harassed before the deadline. Balancing big business and a family can be tough when you are trying to play it straight.

The violence referred to in 'A Most Violent Year' is often within Abel.

The violence referred to in ‘A Most Violent Year’ is often within Abel.

Isaac first raised my eyebrows in Sucker Punch. In a role not worthy of being noticed, he stood out and remained etched in my memory as a talent to look out for. Here he plays to his strengths, acting like a pot of water on boil. He holds in rage with occasional bursts that indicate the pressure that weighs on Abel and the severity of the circumstances he’s in. His work is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if his name is at least thrown in a hat come awards season.

Chastain’s wife shows sex appeal, strength and vulnerability at apropos times. Her collection of credits continues to impress. Throw in Albert Brooks and nice work from relative unknown, Elyes Gabel and you have the makings of a fine, brooding piece. Chandor shoots the film in dark shadows to convey the sense of struggle building upon Abel. Fresh off of Robert Redford’s All is Lost, Chandor remains a talent worth checking on. His diminutive body of work is diverse and off to strong results.

Where Year stumbles is in the aftermath of its conclusion. There are many questions left unanswered about where the characters go from here and what is still to come. While the film brings satisfactory resolution while you watch, my thoughts quickly turned towards what happens next. In some ways, that can take place with almost any film. It’s fine when the beauty and the nerd decide to have a relationship and we cheer at the end but do they really have staying power? In this case, the questions are more realistically tied to the events we just witnessed which caused me a bit of head scratching. Still, A Most Violent Year is an interesting and telling title; it’s a film that simmers with rage and deserves to be seen.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

On his 2009 stand-up album, “Midlife Vices,” comedian Greg Giraldo has a running gag using “…but in this economy” as the punchline. He talks about how thankful Americans were at the time if they were still employed, no matter how much they may have hated their jobs. It then devolves into a guy who gets anally raped while all his possessions were torched, “but in this economy” he was happy to even have stuff to burn.

The 2008 economic crisis has been covered by many American films, such as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” All those movies happen to focus completely on, well, Wall Street. In 1997, the Korean government was in a similar situation, requiring $55 billion in bailout money – mainly from the International Monetary Fund – in order to restore financial order. The entire country felt the brunt, as unemployment within the nation’s borders nearly tripled. “Haemoo” takes place during the heart of this economic climate. Though it has nothing to do with anyone who controls the money, it’s about how such hardships can warp moral character.

While things on land are in a state of disrepair, things at sea aren’t doing much better for Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). His fishing vessel is old and broken down, but more importantly the fish just aren’t leaping into the nets at any rate which would allow him or his crew to provide for their families. In order to make ends meet, Cheol-joo agrees to smuggle a large group of Korean-Chinese immigrants from China into South Korea. The crew is not particularly excited about the idea, but with their financial fate in their captain’s hands, money is money.

Anxiety is high on the seas, with the illegal activity and constant threat of being caught by the coastal authorities, added to the general nature of the ocean making its inhabitants sick, both physically and mentally. When an unforeseen disaster occurs, all the characters cope and react in different ways.

If Michelangelo set "The Creation of Adam" in Seattle.

If Michelangelo set “The Creation of Adam” in Seattle.

The title of the film translates literally as “sea fog,” and co-writer/director, Shim Sung-bo (the other co-writer is “Snowpiercer”’s Bong Joon-ho), makes this natural element just as dangerous to his characters as John Carpenter or M. Night Shyamalan managed. The “haemoo” (I’m going to assume I’m using the word correctly) infects the seaman aboard the floating coyote transport to the degree where when bad things happen, bad choices are made.

Like a mixture of “Titanic” and “Lifeboat,” Shim’s film contains a forbidden romance in the midst of tragedy, which grounds some of the more reprehensible actions which take place with something a little more relatable. Though it’s Shim’s first time in the director’s chair, he’s no novice within the medium, having written Bong’s great serial killer drama, “Memories of Murder.” The writing is where the film stands out like a light amidst the fog of other dramas. It’s a beautiful marriage of a fictional concept tied to a true-to-life event, which still happens to retain a bit of that beautiful Korean bloodletting.

As Giraldo has proven, tragedy plus time equals comedy. Though there’s nary a laugh in “Haemoo,” it proves an equation just as potent: tragedy plus time plus Shim Sung-bo equals fantastic filmmaking. Though I wish ill on no one, if something terrible befalls South Korea, like an economic collapse or a crazed serial killer, it may be worth enduring to later experience Shim’s spin on the subject.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

The majority of American states just transitioned from daylight savings to standard time. Everyone got some extra sleep because we set our clocks back an hour. This’ll usually be done prior to going to sleep or after waking up, but the time switch technically happens at 2:00 a.m. when most people are asleep. But what happens during that hour when knowing it’s necessary to know the exact time? If a doctor pronounces someone dead at 2:01 a.m., he can also pronounce someone dead at 2:02 a.m., but their deaths can actually be an hour apart. There’s a 60-minute period where time is a Mobius strip, repeating itself. Now imagine that Mobius strip of time lasts for 2:15 and there are about eight different strips in one. That’s “Fish & Cat.”

Written and directed by Shahram Mokri, “Fish & Cat” is an Iranian film which takes place near a fairly-secluded lake where college-aged students meet up each year for a kite festival, showing off their colorful models while camping and hanging out with their friends. The film begins with a warning to set the scene with a true tale. There is a restaurant near the lake which was shut down for serving non-animal meat. The movie opens just outside the establishment in question and follows the couple of restaurateurs as they meet a couple of lost students looking for directions to the kite festival. If you think this sounds like the set-up of another teen slasher flick, you’d be right. But it’s not. At least that’s not the way it’s executed. Either way, the film is not necessarily interesting for what it’s about, but for how it’s about.

I now know how “Shawshank’s” Warden Norton felt (“I’d like to think the last thing that went through his head, other than that bullet….”), as my mind was blown. If this film was directed by Michel Gondry, it would finally serve as the cinematic encore we all wanted him to make after taking the leap from his improbably gorgeous music videos to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”  Alas, Gondry’s name is not in the credits as the man behind the camera. Those accolades behind to Mokri. Allow me to explain.

We’ve touched upon the art of the one-shot film before for “Silent House” and “Rope,” and the technique was most recently just deployed again in “Birdman.” Whereas Alfred Hitchcock had to make cuts in “Rope” as film reels were only so long and “Silent House” and “Birdman” had hidden cuts in them preventing a true one-take flubbed-line-loses-all style. “Fish & Cat” is the real deal. Mokri set up his camera, made a movie for two-plus hours and he was done. Though this sounds impressive enough, shooting something in one-shot isn’t necessarily all that challenging (after all, you could conceivably set up a camera in front of a stage, have a play performed in front of it and that could be called a “one-shot film,” too), it’s what Mokri does with that initial concept that expands the creativity and ups the difficulty factor to an almost unbelievable level.

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What are the preferable contents of that bag? Borat-style poo or human flesh?

Similar to the Doug Liman-directed “Go,” “Fish & Cat” tells the same story from different points of view. How does it do that with no cuts? Are you saying that only each point-of-view story is done in one take? No. That’s where the brilliance comes in. At times, the camera follows a set of characters having a conversation as they walk along the bank of the lake, they’ll encounter another character and follow that person’s journey. That person’s journey will loop back around to where the camera first picked up those initial two characters. Confused? This is where the Mobius strip analogy makes the most sense. It’s largely all one big loop, just with multiple diversions within it.

I’ve never encountered this type of storytelling trickery on a large scale outside of a time-travel film. Duncan Jones, the director of “Source Code” had to create a diagram to figure out the time-twisting storyline of that film. I can’t wait to watch “Fish & Cat” multiple times in order to draw such a diagram for myself to determine if what I saw truly worked in the way it was presented. It’s like the end of “The Sixth Sense.” M. Night Shyamalan understands you probably don’t trust his twist ending, so he goes back and does a quick recap of the film, showing you how he pulled the wool over your eyes. “Fish & Cat” can’t do so due to its technique, leaving it up to you to trust your eyes.

Outside of perhaps “Primer” (which is a time-travel film, so there’s obviously an insane logic to it), Mokri has created the biggest brain-bending “how did he do that?” since Michel Gondry’s video for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water.” It’s an awe-inspiring achievement which elevates the somewhat blasé story and it’s one that truly needs to be experienced. A lot of “challenging” films don’t completely connect the dots, “Fish & Cat” traces through all of them. For his latest feature, Mokri learned how to bend time. For his next trick, he might be able to stop it. He already left me breathless.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Penn State Football’s ‘Happy Valley’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Penn State Football’s ‘Happy Valley’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Penn State Football’s ‘Happy Valley’ Review

I have no love for Penn State. They aren’t my college’s biggest rival, so there are schools and teams I hate more, but unless Penn State is playing one of those schools, you’ll never see me root for them. If those first two sentences didn’t spell it out completely, I’m a big college sports fan. And when sports scandals arise around a team I don’t root for (I strangely become uninterested when my team becomes embroiled), I’m hooked. In 2013, when the Miami Dolphins had a locker room bullying scandal, I was all over it. I read every word of the 200-page report that was issued. And I read every character of every text message exchanged between Jonathan Martin and Ritchie Incognito. It provides an inside look at something I love, even if I’d prefer the seedy underbelly didn’t exist.

The 2011 Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal that emerged at Penn State was no different in terms of attracting my attention. I remember listening to pundits on the radio and driving around aimlessly in the car just to completely capture their take.

For the uninitiated, Jerry Sandusky, a longtime Penn State assistant football coach (and Jesus to legendary head coach Joe Paterno’s God, as one interviewee in “Happy Valley” puts it), was accused by multiple victims of sexual abuse when they were children. Sandusky was the founder of a youth sports camp and used this foundation to lure young boys.

An artists removes Sandusky by painting him out of a mural, as a jury removes him from society by sentencing him to prison.

Naturally, none of this was supposedly known by Penn State officials until 2001, when a graduate assistant and former Penn State quarterback, Mike McQueary, reportedly saw Sandusky fondling a boy in one of the Penn State showers. McQueary told Paterno what he saw. Paterno in-turn told his “boss” (in title only, as again, Paterno was “God” in State College, Pennsylvania) and no one ever did anything about it in terms of reporting the incident to law enforcement.

Paterno, who for years was deified, was, all of a sudden, vilified. He was fired after more than 60 years on the job. He died of cancer soon after and a bronze statue of his image was ripped from the campus ground. Penn State had to look itself in the mirror and consider the character of the man they revered.

The director, Amir Bar-Lev (who apparently likes sports-related documentaries, as he had currently directed “The Tillman Story”; he is to documentary-making as I am to documentary-watching), presents complete objectivity throughout “Happy Valley,” as it’s clear he has no answers for the actions that played out regarding the aftermath of the scandal. What he does is present the complex facts of what took place and allows the viewer to draw their own feelings toward the events depicted and issues raised.

I’ve already had numerous discussions about what happened at Penn State, which have essentially been dormant for two years, but the film makes me want to rekindle those talks. Not just about what I think those involve should have done, but what I would have done. I want to  try concocting scenarios that would be analogous in my life and determine if I would have acted any differently.

Bar-Lev does something wise in not making “Happy Valley” a crime film. What Sandusky had done carries no filmic requirement. Instead, Bar-Lev presents how the criminal accusations facing Sandusky affected State College. It’s a document of the time surrounding Penn State and its carries a journalistic integrity, putting the viewer in opinion’s driver’s seat.  It will provoke discussion, which is largely the goal for any documentarian showing “this is the world in which we live.” My feelings regarding what took place after the Sandusky charges are still very much mixed. I do know one thing though. I’m still not going to root for Penn State.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Hot Director Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Hot Director Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Hot Director Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ Review

Anthology films seem to have made a bit of a comeback in recent years. These have mainly been in the horror genre, with franchises like “V/H/S” and the “ABCs of Horror,” but even the Farrelly brothers combined with other comedy directors to create “Movie 43.” Perhaps that’s the problem with these anthologies. They’re all written and/or directed by different people. They’re truly just short films slapped together in an attempt to make one cohesive whole. A skit or short film is usually what they should have remained, but under the guise of a feature film, they’ll almost certainly attract more eyeballs than the alternative.

Enter Argentinian filmmaker, Damián Szifron’s, “Wild Tales.” It’s an anthology film written and directed all by the same man. There are six segments varying in degrees of humor and tension with no real connective tissue other than a loose theme of “the joy of losing control” and their uniform excellence.

The individual parts making up the film are: a plane of crazy coincidence, a restaurant where revenge is the dish-of-the-day, a “Duel”-like tete-a-tete gone wrong (probably redundant as “Duel” itself went wrong), a “Falling Down”-esque frustration with societal norms, a negotiation gone haywire and a wedding where love truly conquers all. Providing any more details about individual plots would spoil the fun.

It’s “Duel.” It’s “Breakdown.” No, it’s “Wild Tales.” And it’s great.

Though the characters and storylines don’t connect and only an actor or two crosses over, all shorts feel of one piece – as they came from the same mind – both structurally and visually. Each story is lengthy enough to flesh out its initial premise, so the viewer never feels short-changed or wanting. Where Szifron’s storytelling skills excel is in his ability to pile on and escalate situations. One kernel of an idea will expand upon itself, snowballing and gathering more debris in its wake until it finally bursts apart for all the audience to enjoy.

As previously mentioned, all shorts have some degree of humor to them. However, Szifron’s comic sensibilities are certainly different from any segment from the likes of “Movie 43.” While that film deals in the comedy of the ridiculous, “Wild Tales” takes reality and spins it just slightly in the direction of the absurd. It’s as if “Curb Your Enthusiasm” had a bit of Latin American bent. Though each short has a similar theme in mind, they aren’t so wildly similar that any segment feels like a retread of another. Each is wholly original and as the film progresses, each new installment is met with rapt anticipation.

Like his story structure, Szifon’s visual style is not cookie-cutter basic, either. He places the camera in some unique places, providing scenic delight. However, it’s the combination of both his writing and directing skills (and admittedly, his Latin American heritage) which causes one to believe he could be the next Alejandro Gonazalez Inarritu or Fernando Meirelles, as the film brought to mind the debuts (“Amores Perros” and “City of God,” respectively) of those filmmakers. Though Meirelles has failed to live up to the extremely lofty standard he set out of the gate, Inarritu just made “Birdman.” Szifron is one to keep an eye out for, but “Wild Tales” shouldn’t be overlooked on its own. It’s, without question, one of the most enjoyable watches of the year.

 

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: ‘The Tribe’ Review (in Pictures)

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: ‘The Tribe’ Review (in Pictures)

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: ‘The Tribe’ Review (in Pictures)

“The Tribe” is a Ukrainian film which contains no dialogue, no subtitles and no voice-over. It stars deaf actors playing deaf characters who communicate purely through the use of sign language. In honor of this concept, this review will be told in pictures only.

The Movie:

 

Reaction:

 

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