Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Oscar-nominated shorts -- Animated

A Single Life -- This fiendishly clever Dutch short manages to encapsulate an entire life in just two minutes. Well, an unnecessarily abbreviated life. Filmmakers Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen show a young single woman who receives a record at her apartment, a jaunty tune of the same title. She finds that by moving the needle forward and back across the record, she can speed up or slow down time. So the pizza she was eating disappears and reappears, or, with bigger skips, her belly swells with a growing baby. Slyly simplistic-looking animation and a coy message about not letting anticipation ruin the moment.

Feast -- This year's entry from Disney is another winner -- both in terms of quality and its prospects for taking the golden statuette. (Disney/Pixar has had quite a run in this category over the years.) Told entirely from the floor-level perspective of gobsmackingly cute street puppy, it spins the tale of his adoption by a young man, who eventually gets a girlfriend, which puts a major crimp in their shared gastrointestinal bliss. Great-looking and heartfelt from director Patrick Osborne, an ode to food, bachelorhood, and life changes.

The Bigger Picture -- This funky and inventive British short combines stop-motion animation and chalk-like drawings to give a bold impression of movement and dimension. Two sons, Nick and Richard, are at odds over the care of their elderly mum. Richard is a well-to-do professional while Nick gave up his ambitions to be a full-time caretaker. Terrific voice work, and a truly original vision by writer/director/animator Daisy Jacobs.

Me and My Moulton -- An autobiographical tale by Torill Kove about growing up in Norway in the 1960s (with English narration) is a sad-but-sweet reminiscence on how parents can both disappoint and inspire you. Young Torill and her two sisters pine for a bicycle like all the other kids. But her mom and dad -- both conceptual architects -- are determined to do everything differently, from their three-legged dinner chairs (frequent child tip-overs be damned) to her father being the only one in town with a mustache. Spare visuals, bleak Norwegian outlook.

The Dam Keeper -- Brave, dark and daring, "The Dam Keeper" is a beautiful tale about finding acceptance from others, and oneself. In a fable-like setting, a lonely pig child operates the dam and windmill that keep the tidal forces of darkness at bay from the bucolic town below. But he is ostracized and ridiculed for his shabby appearance, until a new student arrives bearing a sketchpad and a dollop of hope. The animation is dense and deliberately vague by filmmakers Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. Haunting, yet hopeful.

Review: Oscar-nominated short films: Live Action

La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak (Butter Lamp) -- The entirety of "Butter Lamp" takes place in front of a photographer's backdrop as he and his assistant take portraits of the people of the remotest reaches of Tibet. Occasionally they change the background to taste -- a famous palace, the Great Wall of China, and other schmaltzy scenes. Meanwhile the people in the foreground tell us much about themselves simply through their smiles and a little dialogue. The big news delivered by the mayor is of a missing yak. A sullen young man refuses to wear modern clothes and leaves in a huff. Eventually, business is conducted and something is revealed that is revelatory. A short, smart piece by Hu Wei.

Parvaneh -- A traditional Afghani girl living in Switzerland must travel to Zurich to wire money to her family for a relative's surgery. Despite barely speaking the language and feeling ostracized in a society suspicious of people from the Mideast, Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) negotiates a foreign culture that seems bizarre and dangerous to her. Since her ID is invalid, she enlists the help of a local teen (Cheryl Graf), who at first seems tempted to take advantage of the situation. But they end up forming an unlikely bond. Talkhon Hamzavi's film is sensitive and observant.


The Phone Call -- Sally Hawkins gives a tender performance as Heather, a woman working a British crisis hotline who gets a call from "Stanley" (Jim Broadbent), an older man who has just taken a lot of pills and is overcome with despair. Lamenting the death of his wife, Stan and Heather form a bond in a matter of minutes, connecting over lost love and jazz music. Directed by Mat Kirkby, who also co-wrote the script with James Lucas, this is a film that doesn't offer a lot of surprises but does what it does with great craftsmanship and care.

Boogaloo and Graham -- Director Michael Lennox is a filmmaker born, who instinctively knows the rhythms and reveals of cinematic storytelling. Set in 1978 Belfast, this short concerns two Irish brothers whose dad gives them a pair of chicks, whom they dub Boogaloo and Graham, who soon turn into noisy, scratching chickens -- much to the consternation of their mum. It would seem things will come to a head, and they do, though in unexpected ways. Sun-dappled, bright and witty.

Aya -- An exercise in mood and character, "Aya" is about a chance encounter that somehow becomes deeper. A young Israeli woman (Sarah Adler) is waiting at the airport to pick someone up, when by happenstance she is mistaken for a driver there to transport a stranger. For some reason she agrees to take the fellow, a bookish Danish music researcher (Ulrich Thomsen), to his hotel. They begin a languid conversation that is at times profoundly uncomfortable and comfortably profound. She confesses that she feels closer to strangers than her loved ones, and he tells her never to follow her heart in life, because it will inevitably lead to regret. From directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, a smart movie that eschews answers for provocative questions.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Video review: "The Judge"

One of my favorite pieces of obscure movie dialogue is from “Casablanca.” An old German married couple is practicing their halting English before leaving for America, and the husband asks her the time. “Liebchen, what watch?” “Ten watch.” “Such much?”

I thought of this while watching “The Judge,” a dramatic star vehicle for Robert Downey Jr., which he also produced. It has a solid premise and terrific performances by Downey and Robert Duvall (who deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his work). But the movie is so overloaded with secondary characters and needless subplots the main dynamic is left weakened.

This is an ambitious film that suffers from a case of “such much.”

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-city attorney summoned back to his tiny backward Indiana hometown after the death of his mother. He and his dad, Joseph (Duvall), a prominent local judge, have never seen eye-to-eye, and it would seem that after the unpleasantness of the funeral they are both fully prepared to never speak again.

Then the judge is accused of deliberately running down the town miscreant – whom he sent to prison long ago – and Hank must defend him in court against a high-roller prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) brought in special to bring the elder Palmer down. The latter half or so of the movie is dominated by the trial, with all three actors spouting crackling dialogue and chewing the scenery. Good stuff.

But then there’s “the other.” An old flame of Hank’s (Vera Farmiga) now runs the local bar and seems to have an open window to his innermost psyche. His brothers are a cantankerous ex-pro baseball prospect and a feeble-minded boy/man who makes 8mm movies. Hank’s estranged daughter shows up for a visit. And a young town chick is looking for a hookup. And the prosecutor’s got a personal grudge against the Palmers. And it goes on.

Director David Dobkin and screenwriter Nick Schenk keep piling on the tertiary material, until the weight of it threatens to topple the delicate balance of volatile personalities that are the core of the film’s ample appeal.

“The Judge” is still worth watching, if only to see these veteran actors ply their craft. But when it comes to storytelling, sometimes having “such much” results in subtraction by addition.

Bonus features are merely adequate. The DVD has only a single featurette, “Getting Deep With Dax Shepard” (who has a small, funny part as an inept local attorney). Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and you add a commentary track by Dobkin (so disappointing not to have Downey along for the ride!) plus deleted scenes with their own commentary.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: "Mortdecai"

"Mortdecai" is a piffle, a lark, an utterly inconsequential movie that wears its insipidness like a badge of honor.

There is virtually no acting in it, only cartoonish behavior. It does not have a plot, but simply a collection of scenes ill-strung together. It bets its entire stake on the onscreen appeal of Johnny Depp, but the former World's Biggest Movie Star seems determined to continue to ostracize audiences with another in a string of precious, fey characters that are amusing only to himself.

Oh, the title character is entertaining, at least for the first few scenes. Charlie Mortdecai, the lord of something-or-other, is a down-on-his-luck British art dealer who owes the government a bundle of money. His latest schemes have proven disastrous, so he's enlisted/arm-twisted into running down a famous stolen painting by MI5.

Mortdecai dresses like the lord of the manor -- which he is, though everything in his massive country mansion is about to go up for hock -- has an elaborately pompadoured sweep of hair, very sophisticated erudition, and an appropriately snobby manner. He has also recently grown a mustache, of which he is very proud, even though it is somehow sparse and splayed at the same time, and most resembles, as his wife puts it upon seeing it for the first time, a female body part that has been grafted onto his face.

But Mortdecai's kvetching and strutting -- the man has not an ounce of courage in him -- quickly grows tiresome. This is the sort of character best used as a foil in another story, rather than the main guy. We feel as if we must have fallen asleep, and the movie took a wrong turn.

Let's put it this way: this is the sort of flick in which Mortdecai has a weirdly devoted manservant/bodyguard (Paul Bettany), who has a tendency to bed women wherever he goes, often in the space of a few minutes, whose name is "Jock Strapp." I thought Mortdecai was calling him Jacques, but it's just his swishy accent.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Johanna, Mortdecai's long-suffering wife, who is nonplussed by both their impending penury, as well as the aforementioned face fur. Johanna is more or less the only person in the movie who doesn't behave like an over-the-top nitwit, so it's a bit unclear if she's actually mad with Mortdecai or if this is another round in a long game of twisted flirtation they like to play.

Back in college Johanna chose the exuberant Mortdecai over sweet, sensitive Martland (Ewan McGregor), and now he's a top British intelligence agent who's still carrying a huge torch for Mrs. Mortdecai. Martland forces Mortdecai to run down a rare, rumored Goya painting, which the usual array of criminals and rich jag-offs all want for themselves.

Thus we set off on an international escapade to various famed cities, illustrated by some cheap-looking CGI of planes flying hither and yon.

There are a few genuine laughs in "Mortdecai," which is based on a series of books by Kyril Bonfiglioli. But they are fleeting, and mostly we feel like we've been shoved into Johnny Depp's closet full of idiosyncratic marionettes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I've had something on my mind lately...

I guess tumors of the head are a thing for film critics: Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel ... and me. Not that I would ever compare myself to those giants. Except tumor-wise.

Anyway, I recently was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I'd been vacillating on whether or not to make this information public. I considered just letting a few close family and friends know, which I did. But then it became a game of second-guessing myself about who knew and who didn't. Family being what they are, they told a few others and ... ye olde whisper game commences.

Besides, my long tenure as a journalist/film critic/marketing writer has ingrained in me such a strong proclivity to share news that, even when it's about myself and very personal, I find I have a hard time keeping anything in for long. As I once wrote on my profile for a dating website, "My big, dark secret is that I have no big, dark secrets," and that still holds true.

So -- band-aid off!

It's not a tumor!

Well, the first principle of reporting is to be accurate, so I should say first off that technically, what I have is not a brain tumor. It's what's known as an acoustic neuroma. And it's not really in the brain, but next to the brain stem. It's a rare type of tumor, only about 3,000 diagnoses every year, according to the Acoustic Neuroma Association, the information/support group that's sprung up around it.

Actually, though, "acoustic neuroma" is a misnomer -- it's really a vestibular schwannoma. A neuroma is a tumor of the nerves, while a schwannoma is a tumor on the myelin sheaths that insulate nerves. Medical distinctions like this are important, I've learned.

I just find it slightly hilarious that the association created to address a disease is misnamed after another kind of disease. You'd think somebody at some point would have suggested making the switch: "Hey Bob -- maybe we should actually be named after the thing we're fighting? Like, the tuberculosis people don't call themselves the Asthma Council."

Though as someone whose day job has been in marketing/branding the last few years, I'll be the first to admit that "vestibular schwannoma" just doesn't have the schwing of "acoustic neuroma."

And of course neither holds a candle to "brain tumor" -- which is what I've been using for shorthand, and really has no equal for putting the fear of God into people when you say it out loud. I've found that most other patients do this, too.

Anyway: I'd been experiencing some hearing loss in my left side, following an ear infection in the spring. It never really cleared up properly; the Flonase my family doctor prescribed to help do so did diddly, so I made an appointment with an otolaryngologist (ear, nose & throat doc), who pierced, drained and tubed the eardrum.

Problem solved, we all thought.

But the issue persisted, a hearing test showed mild to moderate hearing loss on one side while an examination suggested something else, so an MRI was ordered, and walla: My schwannoma.

(Will you think less of me if I tell you that since the diagnosis I keep singing The Knack's "My Sharona" inside my head, with the words transposed? I'm considering rewriting the lyrics entirely to fit my situation: "Oh my little pretty polyp, pretty polyp. When you gonna get into my spine, schwannoma?")

First, the good news: it's benign, as all schwannomas are. It's a slow-growing tumor, usually only 1 to 2 millimeters per year. Mine is rather small, but even so it's likely I've had it "on my mind" for some time. The ear infection didn't cause it, merely happened to happen around the same time. In all likelihood, the infection helped reveal the tumor early. And in about one-third of cases, the tumor grows to a certain size and stops on its own.

Now, the unpleasantness. Treatment options are, well, kinda crappy. There's radiation and microsurgery, which have a very good chance of reducing/eliminating the tumor, but also about a 50-50 chance of rendering you completely, permanently deaf on that side. Even a hearing aid won't help.

The radiation might have to be repeated every few years in case the tumor does grow back, with the same crapshoot for hearing loss each time. In general, most radiation patients find their hearing significantly degrades over time. And in a very small percentage of cases, instead of killing the tumor the radiation turns it instantly malignant; it's essentially a death sentence.

Surgery has its own legion of downsides. There are three different ways to go in, all involving opening up the skull, cutting through the dura (protective membrane ) around the brain, draining the cerebrospinal fluid, probing deep into the intracranial spaces near the middle of the skull, and getting the bugger out.

The surgeon is messing around with the major nerve controlling hearing, motor control and balance, and face muscles. So even if hearing isn't destroyed, common side effects are facial paralysis and the inability to walk or drive. Many patient lose the ability to blink, at least temporarily, and must keep an eye bandaged to prevent it from drying out and suffering permanent lens damage.

Typically, surgery means a week in the hospital and up to four months until you can return to work (though many patients are back into a normal routine much sooner). And, needless to say, massive medical bills associated with brain surgery.

So. Well. Shit.

Sussing all that out, there's a pretty miniscule chance of this being life-threatening -- about the same as getting run over by the Wienermobile while walking to my car -- but a pretty decent chance that I'll lose all hearing on the left side, or need a hearing aid to augment the hearing I have left. And an invasive surgery with a prolonged recovery, and the possibility of useful vision in only one eye, at least for a time. Or repeated bouts of radiation the rest of my life.

Umpires and movie critics

Don't think being half-deaf is a big deal? Try going into a large, crowded space with lots of talking and background noise, and plug up one ear with your finger. It becomes very difficult to filter out one sound source from another. Ditto for a modern movie theater sound system. Only by concentrating on a single thing at a time can you make sense of it all. It's the auditory equivalent of tunnel vision.

Whether as a reporter, movie critic, editor or marketing copywriter, a large chunk of my life has been spent keeping my ear to the ground and eyes on the horizon, sensing information that might be useful to others (even if it was just my own opinion) and finding a way to transmit it. So the prospect of losing key parts of my sensory array has left me more than a bit unnerved.

Literally a couple of weeks before my diagnosis, I wrote about the sound mix in the film "Interstellar," complaining that I couldn't make out much of the dialogue. Though it turns out this was a conscious choice by director Christopher Nolan -- and, I still deem, an unwise one -- I could only imagine how this observation would've been received after going public with my condition. People joke about baseball umpires being blind; how will they feel about a film critic who can't hear in stereo or see in three dimensions?

I am aware, of course, that in the grand spectrum of medical challenges mine is dwarfed by those of many, many other people. I am personally acquainted with people with Alzheimer's, who are dependent on wheelchairs, or have Parkinson's, or various other maladies that make their daily life a challenge I could never hope to understand, even if I were to suffer the worst possible outcome of side effects from treatment.

Just in the last two years I have lost my father and sister to cancer, including the latter to a brain tumor that went undetected in her head while they fiddled with and irradiated her nethers. I've been told that, as brain tumors go, mine is the "good" kind to have.

Still, that's kind of like saying that some hurricanes that make landfall in populated regions are preferable to others. It's a statement that is at once absolutely true and completely ridiculous.

To me, the only "good" hurricanes are the ones that stay out in the ocean, remote and lacking a quantifiable toll of death and damages. The same goes for brain tumors,  methinks.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Truman Show"

There are literally college courses taught about "The Truman Show," which is not something most pop-culture movies can say. People have made allusions to its alleged deeper meanings via Christian, urban planning, political and psychological interpretations. I generally find that sort of analysis a waste of time, though the film's insights on the insidious power of media are hard to deny.

Consider that, coming out in 1998, "The Truman Show" predated most of the reality TV crazy, with the exception of MTV's "Real World" and a few other shows. Ron Howard would, a year later, try a similar theme with "Edtv" starring Matthew McConaughey. I don't think it's an insult to note that movie is barely remembered at all.

Though it's important to emphasize that while "Edtv" and all reality shows are about people who proactively decide to have their activities taped -- an arrangement that attracts a certain type of personality -- "Truman" is the only creative production I can think of in which the main character -- and only he -- is unaware of the fact that his doings are being viewed.

In addition, Truman Burbank also believes that his tiny hometown island of Seahaven is real, when in fact it is all an elaborate facsimile -- a TV set the same size and economic impact of a small nation. This basic premise, of our hero living in a constructed world inside of the real one, in which he becomes the main focus of audiences both helpful and antagonistic, would be repeated in a science fiction version in the following year's "The Matrix."

"Truman" even presages the only recently realized phenomenon of the "reality talk show," in which programmers create an additional (and revenue-generating) venue for people to chat about the main show. The movie's "TruTalk," hosted by Harry Shearer, is the forbear to today's "The Talking Dead."

"Truman" also marked the delineation of Jim Carrey's career shift from straight-out funnyman to more dour, ambitious projects, especially "Man on the Moon" a year later. His career has bobbled and wobbled since then, though the recent "Dumb and Dumber To" announced his full retreat back into the comedy safe zone.

Though I usually have difficult naming my all-time favorite films, I have no such reservation about citing directors I most admire. And Peter Weir would certainly be on that list (plus the likes of Ridley Scott, John Boorman, George Miller and David Lean ... apparently I only go for Brits and Aussies.)

Along with "The Truman Show," Weir has "Gallipoli," "Witness," "Green Card," "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Fearless," "Dead Poets Society" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" to his name.

Not a bad cinematic epitaph, that.

(Though personally I hope Weir, who recently turned 70, stays with us a very long time and, Sidney Lumet-like, continues cranking out amazing films right up until the grave beckons.)

Of course, the premise of "The Truman Show" is absurd. It's preposterous to think that you could raise a man to the age of 30 without him ever realizing that everyone around him is actors pretending to be his neighbors, friends -- even his mother and father. And that the perfectly tidy town, with its cotton candy coloring and eternal sunshine (actually Seaside, Fla.), is not real. Plus the treacherous legal and moral implications -- Truman is essentially an imprisoned slave, owned by a corporation.

But Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol (an accomplished director himself of films like "Gattaca") cleverly delay the big reveal of what's really going on until about one-third of the way into the movie, so the audience never really questions the conceit. By then Truman has become so known and endearing to them, they don't even have to suspend their disbelief.

As the tale opens Truman is starting to grow antsy, shucking off the "script" of a perfect life that producer/eye in the sky Christof (Ed Harris) has constructed for him. Though married to incessantly upbeat Meryl (Laura Linney), he still pines for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), a background character who caught his eye and found herself ditching the rules to be with him.

Of course, whenever something happens to break through this "fourth wall," the show has a small army of burly men to rush in to block Truman's view and clean things up. Over the years various saboteurs have attempted to breach the show's sanctum by parachuting into Main Street or holding up signs saying "It's a show!" But Truman has remained blessedly indifferent.

(Though, now that I think about it, I'm not sure if this really constitutes breaking the fourth wall, which is supposed to exist between an ongoing work of art and its audience. In this case, it is not the creative act that is disrupted by acknowledging itself, but internal sabotage by unwilling participants. Someone needs to come up with a name for that.)

I was surprised watching the movie again (for I think the first time in 16 years) how weak Truman's relationships are with the actors playing his mother and father. They only really get one substantial scene apiece, and dad's is when he is reintegrated into the show after his supposed death when Truman was a boy. (This was a calculated psychological manipulation by Christof to render him afraid of water and thus unlikely to want to leave his water-bound hometown.)

Even his relationship with Meryl goes relatively unexplored, or the morality of how the actors who have spent their life participating in the charade feel about it. Only Marlon (Noah Emmerich), who plays his best friend, appears to hold any genuine affection for Truman. Though he carries out Christof's orders, he often seems on the verge of blurting out the truth.

The character of Truman remains something of a goofy cypher, a mix of Carrey's manic early stand-up comic persona and the script's plot demands. In "Ace Ventura" and a lot of Carrey's other early movies, there was an overt aspect of "performance" to the characters, of them playing a part in order to carry out the intended comedic effect, and I think we see a lot of that in Truman. Even he thinks he's putting on a front.

His interactions with other Seahaven residents, often repetitive from day to day, are boring even to Truman. So he's more apt to notice little screw-ups like accidentally receiving the radio signals of the crew tracking his movements via his car radio, or a set light falling from the sky. Indeed, one of the subtlest of subsidiary themes is the notion that, after three decades on the air, the puppeteers pulling the strings have gotten distracted and careless.

Thought-provoking and eerily prescient, "The Truman Show" will likely be one of those films that withstands the tests of the ages -- at least, until we've all got cameras sewn into our bodies, and everything everyone does is recorded and transmitted, everywhere. Say, 2030?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Video review: "The Boxtrolls"

“The Boxtrolls” was easily my favorite animated film of last year – partly because the stop-motion gem is so visually alive and imaginative, but also because there really wasn’t much in the way of competition. Let’s face it, once we got past this movie and one or two others, 2014 was something of a cartoon wasteland.

This picture, based on a book by Alan Snow, simply oozes with British culture and appeal, from the Cockney accents and damp cobblestone streets down to the diaspora of wonky teeth. Set in the late 19th or early 20th century, the story concerns a secret society of gentle pointy-headed critters who live underground and wear castoff cardboard boxes instead of clothes.

They don’t have a discernible language or even names; they each go by whatever picture is on their boxes, which they pilfer – along with many other things – from the humans above. The exception is Eggs (voice of Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a human boy who was kidnapped (sort of) by the boxtrolls as a baby and raised as one of their own.

Their adventures take them above ground, where the terrifying Archibald Snatcher (a delightful Ben Kingsley) has appointed himself chief boxtroll catcher. Soon most of the troll population has been grabbed up and tossed into his dungeons. The daughter of a local lord (Elle Fanning) provides reluctant help, mostly out of resentment toward her absentee father.

It seems Snatcher dreams of joining the cadre of “White Hats” – genteel gentlemen who run the town, ostensibly -- though they don’t seem to do more than sit around sampling exotic cheeses. By portraying the boxtrolls as a scourge, Snatcher hopes to stoke public fear and use it to springboard himself into their good graces.

Visually arresting and impishly funny, “The Boxtrolls” is a family-friendly treat.

Fortunately, the film is being released on video with a host of excellent extra features. There’s a feature-length commentary track by directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, and a raft of featurettes touching on all aspects of production, from casting the voice actors to creating a fancy ballroom dance scene with stop-motion puppets.

There are also preliminary animatic sequences and much more.



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