An Honest Liar

March 29, 2015 at 5:43 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This documentary about famous magician and psychic-debunker, James Randi, started out as a modest affair that ended up, quite inadvertently, becoming something slightly more. “The Amazing Randi,” as he is called, has been doing Houdini-esque escapes and standard slight-of-hand magic since the 50s. However, starting sometime around 1970, he also became obsessed with rooting out charlatans, like Uri Gellar, who profess psychic abilities (or divine revelation). He was very successful at this secondary career and it’s quite a bit of fun to watch him take down these con-men. Randi’s wry sense of humor is, at times, laugh out loud funny. The film becomes more philosophical as it notes Randi’s growing disillusionment with the average person’s ability to think critically. Where it narratively falls apart and simultaneously becomes quite griping is when an unexpected revelation crashed into the story. It’s clear that the film makers had intended to tell Randi’s story, building up the great irony of a man who exposes myths, all while keeping a massive one of his own: that he is gay. In the original manuscript, I am sure that was the big reveal. However, in this version, it is hinted at widely from moment one and revealed anti-climatically fairly early on. This is because the film-makers suddenly discovered, part way through shooting, that they had much bigger fish to fry. The end result is a film that does not build cohesively toward it’s ending but takes the audience to some interesting places. That bigger fish is a shocker, for sure, and opens up some fascinating potential for exploration. Harder hitting journalists would have gone for the throat but these folks are clearly fans of Randi’s and, ultimately, allow him to skirt some compelling questions. Can you be a crusader for truth and a liar as well? Of course. Does it undermine your message? Now that’s a more interesting question. This ended up being such a human story, less about the feats of “The Amazing Randi” and more about James Randi in all of his wonderful complexity. And, while it showed glimpses of a greatness unrealized, this final film was so much deeper and more interesting than the one they set out to make.

It Follows

March 22, 2015 at 7:12 pm | Posted in 2015 | 1 Comment
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This perfectly titled film is the creepiest fun I have had at the movies in years. Since maybe “The Others,” in fact. Wisely leaving behind the slasher motif that has grown so tired in the American horror genre, second time director, David Robert Mitchell, takes us gleefully back to the days of classic Hitchcockian horror, while slyly nodding at the golden age of horror in the 1980s. During the height of AIDS-anxiety, those films were all morality tales with only thinly veiled allusions to the idea that impulsive teenage sex can kill you. Mitchell, in a stroke of genius, simultaneously makes that allusion overt and inverts it entirely. The resulting premise is winkingly sardonic and the audience seems in on the joke. When the opening scene features a terrified teenage girl in a negligee and candy-red pumps, Mitchell has made clear his intentions to riff on (and gently mock) familiar tropes. But beyond all of this sly winking, there is also a chillingly creepy film. The evil in this story comes slowly and ever unrelentingly toward its victims. It never stops; it just patiently follows. Under Mitchell’s directions, that leads to some beautifully chilling scenes. He has a keen eye for the techniques of horror film making: his camera angles, lighting, scene structure and use of music all build tension almost unrelentingly. The score, in particular, effectively kept the audience on edge, even in seemingly benign scenes. But this was what made the film a truly effective horror movie: the way it so successfully reframed innocent moments as potentially terrifying. It was not without flaws. Characters sometimes behaved in those same, stupefyingly idiotic ways they often do within this genre. The teens’s parents were ridiculously absent as all manner of death and terror unfolded. And the climactic scene did not quite live up to its build up, though, to be fair, this is not an easy task and one does not go to a horror film just to see how it ends up. It’s all about the journey and this one was delightfully chilling from the first scene to the final one.

’71

March 15, 2015 at 5:54 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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From the fist-flying first scene, the tone is set for this careening rush of a film. Part action movie, part war movie with dashes of “Run Lola Run,” this was the most tense I have felt in a theater in a long time. Director Yann Demange (in his first feature film) shows a canny ability to frame a scene to hold the audience rapt. He can build tension both explosively and painfully slowly and this film called for both. Set in Belfast in 1971, the story covers one night as a British soldier left behind on the streets tries to make it to safety. Much happens in the intervening hours over a taut 99 minutes, sometimes in rapid, unrelenting bursts and sometimes at a slow simmer but always, always tense. Jack O’Connell (newly famous for the lead role in Angela Jolie’s “Unbroken”) plays the young private with a desperate intensity that easily draws the audience in; he is a character impossible not to sympathize with. Strong performances also came from Corey McKinley, as the young protestant who initially helps him and, in particular, from Barry Keoghan as his IRA doppelganger, Sean. Though somewhat predictable, their intertwining relationship plays out effectively. A story like this cannot help but make social commentary and it would be hard to not apply this conflict to our modern world. Early street scenes reminded me so much of virtually identical scenes in recent films about the US presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was also really struck by how much the Irish not only attacked the occupying British but also each other. This morning, I was speaking with a friend in Tel Aviv and we were coincidentally talking about the conflict there. He told me about prejudice and hostility between not just Jews and Palestinians but also between the Ashkenazim Jews and the Mizrahim Jews. I suppose there are similar conflicts within the Palestinians. It seems human beings feel value only by establishing our superiority over each other. Homo homini lupus. As it was, it appears it will always be.

What We Do in the Shadows

March 8, 2015 at 4:37 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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½

I really have so little to say about this film. It thought it was so much funnier than I thought it was. Granted, comedy is tricky and I am notoriously fickle in that arena. I tend to like parody (like Christopher Guest’s films) or absurdity (like Wes Anderson’s) and, while this was essentially an absurdist parody, it had none of the sophistication of those other two. This mockumentary (that whole genre is getting a bit tired, frankly) purportedly follows 4 vampires who are flat mates in Wellington, New Zealand. We get a “behind-the-scenes” look at what it’s like to be an ancient evil in the modern world. Reinventing classic horror characters as either endearing or funny is hardly new but this could have had potential and certainly most critics liked it (95% of them would it “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes). However, there was nothing new here for me. The jokes were largely variations on the fish-out-of-water gag that has been a cornerstone of humor for longer than these undead have been around. That and the other standard gag of showing some larger-than-life group experience the same mundane existence the rest of us do; see vampires squabble about who is going to do the dishes, how fun. Next, we’ll have a movie about zombie office workers. Werewolf high school students (oh, wait…). Speaking of werewolves and zombies, there are a few of them thrown in here as well. Which reminds me: if you can’t make a horror comedy funny, at least make it look good. But the special effects were so amateurish as to be the only things laughable here. Peter Jackson is given a thanks in the credits but its clearly not for helping out in any way. The only reason I can’t give this film a big zero is because there is a certain amount of heart and soul put into it by the two writers/directors/lead actors. This is clearly their labor of love and not some cynical Hollywood misstep. That deserves some sort of nod, however small it may be.

Gett: The Trail of Viviane Amsalem

March 1, 2015 at 8:30 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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During the box office doldrums between the circle jerk that is the Oscar rush of Fall and the beginning of blockbuster season in May (which is the full on jerk off of the rest of America), there is this quite little period when one can often find hidden gems at the movies. These are almost always the small foreign films that will never make much money and just wouldn’t get seen during the Fall glut of films but are sometimes brilliant, none-the-less. More than once, my favorite film of the year has come from this period. While this one won’t likely be my favorite, it is a strong work worthy of recognition. Taking place entirely in an Israeli courtroom and lobby over the course of several years, the film follows one woman’s herculean task of trying to get a divorce (called a “gett” in Hebrew) without her husband’s support. In the hands of directors Ronit & Shlomi Elkabetz, the Israeli legal system is a shockingly sexist bureaucracy so absurdist it reminded me of Gilliam’s “Brazil” and Heller’s “Catch 22.” In parts, the film was so absurdist that you had to laugh even while the implications were chilling. In this world, women are invisible, even when they are ostensibly the center of attention. Men whirled and fretted and preened and bloviated all in a maelstrom around Viviane (played with a cold fury by director Ronit Elkabetz), second guessing her capacity for rational decision making, all the while revealing her as the only rational one in the room. While the repetition can get a bit tiresome in parts (the film could have perhaps been 20 minutes shorter), there is a powerful message here. This is a clever film from start to finish and well worth the irritation, indignation and surprise it will evoke in you.

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