AMY

AMY, Asif Kapadia’s devastating new documentary about UK’s silky voiced, troubled jazz diva Amy Winehouse is a revealing eye opener and disturbing look at a genuine natural born talent.  

The first revelation when watching the story of Amy unfold, is when we realize the truly extraordinary musical ability coming out of this happy spontaneous teenage girl from a broken home with big eyes and a broad smile.

Amy was gifted with not only a soulful sultry voice but music just seems to radiate from her body. Whatever came into her head manifested itself spontaneously into natural poetic lyrics that seemed to be coming out of a much older and seasoned professional.

The public was instantly turned on to her haunting smoky voice and soulful lyrics which were deeply affecting and mirrored the struggles in her personal life. Watching Amy as she grows as an artist and gains in fame, it seemed she was living a dream that quickly turned into a nightmare.

The second shocking revelation from watching this documentary is how fast Amy descends into a downward spiral due to her extremely obsessive personality and volatile emotional issues, reacting strongly to problems that start to surface in her dysfunctional relationships with her father and boyfriend. 

The very traits that made her such an exceptional artist are the same traits that also brought about her self-destruction. As the money train continued to gain velocity, no one, including the people closest to her, was willing or able to put on the brakes when a crash seemed imminent. 

Powerful and heartbreaking, this is a must-see documentary that gives insight into a huge vocal talent and how our toxic dollar driven, celebrity obsessed society allowed such a young vulnerable life to be cut short in such an untimely and uncaring manner. She was like a modern day Mozart who was unaware of the effect her genuine creative ability had on people and was taken aback by the overwhelming reaction of the media and her fans. 

Even if you’ve never heard of Amy Winehouse, you will be captivated by this authentic passionate young gem caught in a turbulent sea of bad influences. Her father Mitch, who abandoned her mother after a longtime affair with another woman when Amy was very young, and her cocaine addicted boyfriend Blake were among her biggest influences; both were getting a free ride on the runaway success of Amy’s early albums and were blind to Amy’s emotional needs and psychological problems.

British born director Asif Kapadia, who also produced the celebrated documentary SENNA (2010) about Brazilian Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna, and grew up in the same North London area where Amy lived, insisted on full creative control over the project. 

With access to some very personal and intimate archival footage of Amy he skillfully blends interview footage of her friends and family into a visually innovative chronicle of the deeply troubled singer/song writer as she rises from fun loving local prodigy to an international sensation. 

Amy like Ayrton was a singular talent, a mesmerizing young sensitive individual who could live no other way than where her heart and ability lead her. Their greatest strength also became their greatest weakness. They both died tragically. Amy was a great loss and her voice will live on in her songs but there are important lessons to be learned here about the negative effects of too much fame too soon.

JP

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This is the review that tells you about a new film that doesn’t suck. In fact it’s exceptionally good, but where do I start? Do I tell you about the Sundance Film Festival awards it has won (Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award) and the enthusiastic audience responses, or should I just tell you to go see it and be wonderfully surprised and moved?

It’s true that judging by the title, the film will make you smile, feel like laughing and sad at the same time. This assessment is not far off, in fact beneath all the funny feel-good stuff lays a raw honesty and intense personal experience that strikes deep into the heart.

Greg Gains played by Thomas Mann, a teenager with commitment issues, narrates the story of the worst time of his life, and the best. He’s an awkward kid who dreads high school social life and tries his best to blend in without being noticed. 

Living with his parents on the outskirts of sub-urban Pittsburgh, Greg is raised on a diet of obscure foreign films thanks to his eccentric father. When his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with Leukemia, Greg’s mother nags and guilts him into spending time with her to show that he is not the insensitive anti-social creep that he pretends to be.

When he’s not avoiding people, Greg and his buddy Earl (RJ Cyler) secretly make horrible parodies of classic films for their own enjoyment. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a festival favorite because it makes reference to so many classic foreign films. Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), a documentary about the making of Werner Herzog's jungle epic Fitzcarraldo (1982) is especially singled out with hilarious effect. 

Like the kids in Son of Rambow (2007), Greg and Earl enjoy making fun of their favorite cult classics by videotaping themselves with improvised costumes and dialogue. And like Oliver Tate in Submarine (2010) Greg finds himself ill prepared to deals with the distress of spending a lot of time with a girl and dealing with emotional issues relating to death and terminal illness.

Gradually, as Greg and Rachel spend more time together, even through the chemo treatments, their clumsy friendship grows. Reluctantly Greg and Earl decide to put their film making talents to use to produce a movie for Rachel in hopes that it will make her, if not better, at least temporarily forget about her dire situation. But making the film proves more difficult than expected as Greg must now confront his feelings for Rachel.

Based on the novel by Jesse Andrews who also wrote the screenplay, this charming coming-of-age tale with a powerful message has a truthful voice that feels authentic, relevant and in touch with current adolescence.

The sometimes unusual framing by Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung emphasizes the awkwardness and the uncomfortable situations the characters find themselves in.

In the competent skillful hands of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has worked as a second unit director for films including Babel (2006), assisting celebrated directors such as Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu, he elevates the quirky coming-of-age comedy material to unexpected level of emotional depth and insight. 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl marks the arrival of a major new talent in cinema. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has put his considerable talent and heart into a personal film experience not to be missed and is already garnering Oscar buzz.

JP

Clouds of Sils Maria / While We're Young

As our generation ages so also are the filmmakers and actors from that generation, who are becoming pre-occupied with making films that reflect on the state of our lives as we grapple with our changing bodies and the world around us. 

Two films of note that deal with our need to stay in touch with our ever changing society while also dealing with the ever pressing sense of our legacy and the limited time available to achieve our ambitions, are Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and While We’re Young (2015).

Both of these excellent films are about aging artists struggling with the loss of their fading youth and careers. In both stories the aging artists, a well-known film actress in Clouds of Sils Maria and a documentary filmmaker in While We’re Young, are working on difficult late career projects and become bogged down with doubts while striving to recover a sense of excitement and joy they seem to have lost over the years. 

In each case they reach for the advice and influence of much younger people to try and understand the current trends in culture and revive their sense of passion for their own projects. At first this strategy seems to work, giving them a new sense of exuberance and vitality. 

While We're Young:
In the case of Noah Bombauch’s While We’re Young, Josh and his wife Cornelia, played by Ben Stiller – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) and Naomi Watts – Birdman (2014), try to reinvent themselves while under the influence of a younger 20 something couple Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver – Tracks (2014), This is Where I Leave You (2014) and Amanda Seyfried – Mama Mia! (2008), who are into all things vintage. 

While the middle aged childless couple try to stay relevant with their latest electronic gadgets, the younger couple are obsessed with doing things the old fashioned way, discovering with fascination the music and old-school tech of the 70s and 80s, which of course is ironic since these are the very things our middle aged couple have discarded over the years as new improved tech has come to replaced them, but they now become nostalgic when faced with a blast from their past. 

They are drawn into the lives of their new hipster friends, joining them for fun spontaneous events around New York City that are decidedly non-digital and lament the loss of a simpler way of life. It’s like a Woody Allen film lamenting how much the world has changed from life not so long ago since the digital age changed everything with instant knowledge at our fingertips, but a lack of face to face human interactions. 

While We’re Young is a pleasing and poignant comedy in equal measure, and a welcome return to Ben Stiller’s more subdued and earnest roles like the one he played in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but still retaining his trademark humor that relishes in awkward situations.

Clouds of Sils Maria:
In Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) a celebrated actress Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche – Chocolat (2000), Godzilla (2014), relies on her young assistant Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart – Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), to find new relevance and inspiration in a role from a play that launched her career in her youth. 

At first she dismisses the idea but Valentine eventually convinces Maria to revisit the play performing an older character suited to her current age opposite the young character that made her famous so many years earlier.

It’s a thoughtful and intimate behind the scenes look at the philosophical preparation and the tedious rehearsal process involved in building a character leading up to a convincing performance on stage. 

Maria discovers that playing this older person strikes a little too close to home and is proving more challenging than she was prepared to deal with. She must now come to terms with her past, reliving the memories of an earlier time in her life while finding new meaning in the play and in her own life. 

The film also exposes some of the crazy and annoying situations that celebrities must contend with while being hounded by paparazzi, making it difficult to maintain a semblance of a normal life. 

Kristen Stuart is superb and gives such a natural subtle performance that she draws us in and transfixes us with her every word and gesture. She is the first American actress to have won France’s prestigious Cesar Award for her supporting role in this film.

Clouds of Sils Maria and While We’re Young are intriguing studies into the new challenges facing our generation, not only artists and filmmakers, but all of us who feel time and life slipping away, and how we will face the future while reconciling with our past.

JP

MAD MAX: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a shock wave of heavy metal madness for a new generation of rock n roll action junkies. This high octane road rage from the director of Happy Feet (2006) will blast you back into your seat with its sheer brutal assault on the senses.

George Miller, Aussie writer and director of the original Mad Max trilogy (1979 – 1985), shifts the franchise into a pulse pounding, Kodo drumming, gear grinding adrenalin rush, and eye-popping spectacle that grabs you by the retinas and drags you under its monster wheels. 

It’s a visceral stunt laden ride through the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. A hyper relentless race for freedom and survival with the mother of all monster truck chases through dunes of hell. An operatic desert storm with visually arresting vehicles and Cirque du Soleil feats filtered through the hot orange hue of wind swept dust and sand. 

In a vast desert wasteland of warring tribes, the story of a ruthless greedy dictator, Immortan Joe, who controls the water in the desert and keeps it to himself, doling out only just enough for his parched population of devoted cult zombies, runs along the same lines as Gore Verbinski’s road runner animated movie Rango (2011). But that is where the similarities to Rango end.

The archetypal characters require no back story or explanation.  We instantly recognize them and their roles are obvious. One of Immortan Joe’s best drivers, Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron, tasked with transporting a fuel tanker to a nearby industrial complex, decides to make a run for freedom and breaks from the convoy into the open desert where she believes a green Valhalla exists.

Before you can say ‘What a lovely day’ the entire colony is after her, including various tribal desert dwellers on motorcycles and dune buggies whose territories they are passing through. Max, played by Tom Hardy, who is captured by the cult leader Joe’s freak followers at the start of the film, is strapped to the front of one of their vehicles as they pursue the renegade Furiosa.

Unknown to everyone is the revelation during the ensuing chase that Furiosa is carrying something far more valuable than just fuel. The stakes have just been raised.

The prickly pleasure of Mad Max comes out of its innovative deviant mix of retro vehicular scrap and flaming lethal weaponry fused together haphazardly into the strangest collection of hostile souped-up war machines not seen driving through desert wasteland since the invasion of Iraq by US troops. Its beauty is in its relentless momentum of outrageous action and enthusiasm for sheer anarchist mayhem.

It’s the kind of movie you don’t need to bring your brain to; just strap yourself in and let the experience blast over your eyes and ears. Think of it as one long glorious epic Sapporo (Japanese beer) commercial fuel injected with The Canonball Run (1981) on steroids.

If you were a fan of the original films this one definitely takes it to the next level of kick-ass action and motor stunts. The thunderous music score by Junkie XL is overwhelming but then that’s the whole point. The entire movie is so turbo charged that there is nothing subtle about it.

This is the kind of extravagant spectacle that’s worth watching on a big IMAX screen in 3D. So go big or go home.

JP

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller, in addition to directing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, also plays Walter Mitty, the likeable anonymous everyman living a routine humdrum existence while daydreaming his way through life for fear of actually living it. That is until the LIFE magazine he works for decides to undergo a major restructuring, adapting to a new digital world that caters to a growing online market. 

Based on the 1939 short story by James Thurber, it’s a timeless classic that’s as relevant today as it ever was. The circumstances have been updated for a modern audience and given a more optimistic feel-good ending, but the story hasn’t lost its overall power and appeal.

Ben Stiller, While We’re Young (2015), Night at the Museum (2006), Zoolander (2001), is well suited to the role of the overly imaginative office clerk who lives in his mind more so than in the real world. Even online dating is a terrifying prospect and while building his online profile, Walter is dismayed when he realizes he has never done anything or been anywhere. All the adventures he had planned early in his life had come to nothing.

Visually the film is fun and playful, giving full expression of the more fantastical elements of Walter’s heroic fantasies. But in addition to the seamless digital action on display the film also takes us to actual naturally breathtaking locations around Iceland where much of the film was shot.

The magazine’s longtime adventurous globetrotting photographer, played by Sean Penn, who still clings to old-school techniques to capture his iconic images, has entrusted Walter with the negatives of his quintessential photo that will be the cover of the final printed issue. 

The company executives, who tease and make fun of Walter for his odd behavior of zoning out when in a day dream, threaten to fire him when the negative for the magazine cover goes missing. He must now go on a daring mission to find it by tracking down the elusive photographer who is somewhere in the rugged volcanic terrain of Iceland or maybe it’s Greenland.

With a great deal of humor and Ben Stiller’s hilarious trademark awkwardness, the film is both entertaining and poignant as the timeless theme of striking out and facing our fears while living life to the fullest, as corny as it may sound, still works it’s inspirational magic.

Inspired by his affection for a girl who also works at the magazine, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) recently from The Skeleton Twins (2014), Walter gradually learns to overcome his fears and manages to muster enough courage to get onto a plane and head for the unknown. His day dreams eventually lessen as he begins living them.

This heartwarming film was clearly a labor of love for the filmmakers who have instilled the beautifully shot movie with a strikingly whimsical visual design; from the sterile cool steely monochromatic look of the office spaces and New York City towers, to the scenic barren panoramic landscapes of Iceland.

For those not familiar with the book, I encourage anyone to rediscover this cautionary tale of the consequences of not allowing yourself to live up to your full potential. As the film tells us; Stop dreaming, start living.

JP

The Anniversary

A Toronto couple, Teresa (Deborah Hay) and Sam (Ben Carlson) reaching middle age with nothing but disappointment to show for their 20 year relationship, come to a breaking point on their 20th wedding anniversary when Sam decides to take a jog and never returns.

The Anniversary is an absorbing chamber piece that takes place during one night in a downtown Toronto home where Teresa has invited a few of her family and friends for a dinner party while undergoing a personal crisis due to her husband having walked out on her exactly one year ago.

Toronto based Canadian actress/writer and director Valerie Buhagiar known for such films as Adriatico My Love (2011) Expecting (2002), Highway 61 (1991) and Road Kill (1989), and having directed many short films, has just completed her first feature length film as director. The Anniversary was made on a meager budget in ten days during a cold Toronto December, and is a well-crafted quirky slice-of-life drama that has many off beat comic moments. 

Unable to move on from the mysterious disappearance of her husband, Teresa withdraws suffering from loneliness and depression. But she continues to hold out hope that one day he will return, perhaps even tonight. “He just needed a break”

The theme of loss and hope is prevalent as all the guests at the party seem to have lost something and are disappointed with who they have become. We wonder if Sam will return as we learn more details about the couple’s relationship through a varied group of characters who all have their own interpretation of the unexpected walk out, and are dealing with the crisis in their own way. 

The film explores underlying questions of relationships and marriages, and society’s expectations, but feels much lighter due to the ensemble cast’s often humorous and awkward interactions. The characters are well written, each having a life of their own and feels at times like an intervention support group with people of varying ages and backgrounds.

There is a middle aged business man Carl (Colin Mochrie), who has hopes of stepping in as Teresa’s boyfriend, next is Teresa’s gruff mother who wants to put some sense into her daughter, a lonely middle aged singer who had an affair with Teresa’s husband, there’s Teresa’s son Nicky who has withdrawn into his world of rap music and art, a university art student who had worked with Sam, and a neighborhood security guard who is also looking to court Teresa.

The atmosphere is thick with a simmering crisis where everyone is in denial and there is no consensus on reality or truth. Everyone seems to be in a state of limbo, waiting for something to be resolved or a moment of clarity so they can move on with their lives. 

The performances of the ensemble cast generally feel spontaneous and improvised making for some amusing moments and writer-director Buhagiar skillfully imbues the film with a gentle charm using music by local artists like Manteca, Michele McAdorey, Mary Margaret O’hara, and Lyne Tremblay helping give the film an alluring and hopeful quality.

JP

Kabukichô Love Hotel (Sayonara Kabukichô)

Kabukichô Love Hotel is a sweet heartfelt, thought provoking examination of a little-known and mysterious aspect of Japanese culture through genuine love stories of people from all walks of life who converge at a ‘love hotel’; a Japanese version of a sex themed hotel in Shinjuku district of Tokyo. 

It’s a hilarious unusual but honest, sensitive look at the lives, loves and ambitions of a group of ‘Love Hotel’ employees and their customers. We get to know the young troubled staff and their work environment intimately as we follow multiple storylines during a typical night at the Atlas Love Hotel over a 24 hour period. 

Rarely fazed by the illicit events that occur on a typical shift, they sometimes find themselves and their clientele in awkward predicaments. Clearly not their idea of an ideal job they lament their prospects while passing the time hanging out in the employee lounge dreaming of future aspirations.

Unique to Japan, where there are all manner of such seedy but colorful establishments in the entertainment districts, they are frequented by couples who want some privacy and a quick discreet getaway where and they can pick from a variety of small romantic themed rooms of their choice on an hourly or overnight basis. 

Director Ryuichi Hiroki has a personal connection to these characters and this shadowy district, having grown up close to one of these hotels. One senses that this film was a labor of love for him. The 61 year old director, who started out making soft porn films, has a talent for getting the most intimate and genuine performances out of his young ensemble cast who find themselves in the strangest and most embarrassing of situations. He skillfully reveals intimate and touching moments taking place in bizarre circumstances. Some are sad and others border on comedy but all are sincere.

The atmosphere is like that of a close knit family doing unusual work and we are privy to the whole spectrum of experiences that transpire during a typical day and night at the hotel, providing a revealing insider’s look at the intimate private sexual culture in Japan. 

Some of the down and out characters we encounter at the Atlas Hotel consists of a cleaning lady who is hiding a secret and keeping a low profile from the law, a young couple who want to save money to start their own business, and the young disheartened manager of the hotel (Shôta Sometani), who is shocked to discover his girlfriend with another man at the hotel while also having to confront his sister about acting in a porn shoot which is filming there. 

This film touches on some of the many social issues that Japanese youth are struggling with today. Often what brings people to these hotels are painful personal problems of loneliness, and sex in many cases is just a way to relieve or deal with that pain. 

A hit on the festival circuit, this extraordinary brave film transcends cultural boundaries and should find a broader audience outside Japan with its truthful depiction of human frailties and our strong desire for intimacy and love connections. 

JP

Downton Abbey

This is the first TV series I feel compelled to write about, it’s just that good. This highly acclaimed multi-award winning series from Masterpiece Classic has achieved a level of excellence that I associate only with high quality, big budget feature films, displaying top notch talent, writing and production values. And it has sustained this level of excellence throughout its entire five season run and is still going strong. I now know why this show has become such a worldwide phenomenon. 

The idea of a post-Edwardian era aristocratic family living in a large ancestral mansion with a staff of servants catering to their every need was a premise I initially felt reluctant to embrace and I felt was perhaps more suited to a niche Royals obsessed traditional English audience. I soon realized after watching only a few episodes that Downton Abbey has a far broader appeal. 

Marking the beginning of the end of British aristocracy, the show deals with the highly organized inner workings and politics between a diverse staff of service workers under a strict social hierarchy who keep the manor running as much as or even more than the aristocratic Crawley family members whom they serve.

This cinematic production feels like a lavish costume drama, with episodes of approximately one hour long each forming a continuous ongoing story; it easily lives up to and exceeds the standards of similar high budget films in the genre. The period drama follows all manner of lovable characters working and living at the Estate, from the kitchen maid to the Lord of the manor, the Earl of Grantham, and their often hilarious and intriguing interactions.

The large country estate runs like clockwork and everyone in it has their place and function. Despite individual conflicts and crisis, everyone pulls together as a family. Relationships and romances form in the unlikeliest of places by the unlikeliest of people all living under one roof. Keeping track of it all with so many characters is part of the fun. 

Downton is a complete fully realized world playing out against a backdrop of actual historical events in turbulent times at the turn of the century, deftly juggling multiple storylines simultaneously, as we’re kept engaged with the plotting scheming characters living and working within the halls of the grand Mansion known as Downton Abbey.

The accuracy and well researched wealth of historical details on display makes for an experience that’s as educational as it is delightfully entertaining. Reflecting on a truly epic era of change spanning from the sinking of the Titanic through to the Second World War, we are shown a new perspective on significant historical events that only a show of this length and caliber can achieve. This is what the British are after all so remarkably good at.

The estate itself takes on a character of its own as the home and sanctuary, passed down through the ages that everyone works to protect against an ever changing age of new technology and vanishing traditions at a time when many of these estates were falling into ruin and tolerance for such extravagant and ornate ways of life was waning.

Downton Abbey may be the first actual evidence I’ve seen, along with BBC’s Sherlock series, of that often used expression when describing the current era in television as being the new golden age of TV. This is a series that will stand the test of time with its universal stories of people from a bygone era struggling with life and issues not so far removed from our own. 

A warning to anyone embarking on their first adventure in this grand world of Downton Abbey, no matter where you pick up the story, it will grab you with its charm, wit and social commentary bringing you under its spell as it has so many others.

JP

Burden of Dreams

Burden of Dreams (1982) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the people and places involved in the making of Werner Herzog’s jungle epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), the story of one man’s impossible dream to bring Opera to the Amazon jungles of South America as a metaphor for conquering our darker primal nature through enlightenment by enchanting the Peruvian natives with music.

Les Blank was hired to document the making of this grand sweeping adventure tale as it was being shot in the most isolated and inhospitable tropical forests of Peru. The herculean task of bring this film to life became just as harrowing as the adventure story it was depicting, which Herzog says is based on a news story he read.

The making of Herzog’s jungle odyssey Fitzcarraldo, is an epic tale of man’s struggle against nature that has much in common with the making of Apocalypse Now (1979), which was documented in the film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991).

While on location Herzog’s cast and crew lived in the remote jungle for months among wild animals and tribes of native Indians. Indigenes tribes where used in the film as actors and we discover how the rivalries among these natives led to some extremely dangerous situations for the film crew.

At one point in the story of Fitzcarraldo, the eccentric character of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), obsessed with building an Opera house in the jungle, must find a way to haul his mammoth three deck riverboat over a steep hill between two river tributaries. With the help of the Machiguenga and Asháninka Indians using only the raw materials found in the jungle, they must clear the rainforest by hand to create a land passage through the jungle.

The jungle and the enormous river ferryboat become characters in the film symbolizing the grueling up-hill struggle of one man’s passion for Opera music. Herzog likens it to his own chaotic and sometimes absurd battles to get his films made. He says ‘If we don’t strive to realize our dreams than life is meaningless’. 

Coming from a documentary background and for the sake of art and realism, Herzog attempts to achieve this part of the film by doing it for real; actually bulldozing a path through the jungle and pulling a real life-sized riverboat over a large steep chunk of Peruvian jungle.

Much like the heavy unwieldy riverboat slowly being dragged through the mud, the film production is eventually bogged down and engulfed in its own mounting obstacles that include financing, politics, accidents, conflicts with the crew and the natives, weather, and the wild unpredictable antics of the lead actor Klaus Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski’s collaborations have become legendary, an infamous partnership that spans 5 classic films including Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Cobra Verde (1987), and their earlier classic jungle epic Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972).

This extraordinary documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in movies, filmmaking and anthropology, and a perfect companion piece to the film itself. Fitzcarraldo is Herzog’s magnum opus, his most ambitious masterpiece and a timeless piece of art, and this document of its making is invaluable for its insight into the process and motivations of those involved in its creation.

JP

Whiplash

A throwback to art school dramas like Fame (1980), without the spontaneous singing and dancing in the streets, Whiplash takes place in the musty wood paneled halls of a music conservatory where one notorious teacher is determined to bring out or break out the best in his music class. But are his extreme methods crossing the line between inspiration and psychological abuse?

Essentially a two person drama focused on a mentor protégé relationship, we follow Andrew (Miles Teller), a first year jazz drumming student, as he tries to impress and win the admiration of the most demanding and merciless music teacher in the country. 

Unlike the apathetic, languid Mason in Boyhood, this intense coming-of-age tale takes its subject on a harrowing journey in pursuit of perfection and what it takes to be great at something, taking the adage that greatness is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or in this case blood sweat and tears, to extreme levels.

The volatile Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) gets results because he’s a brutal disciplinarian who accepts no excuses and runs his jazz orchestra class like a boot camp, kicking anyone not up to his standards out without a moment’s hesitation. He is the Chef Ramsey (Hell’s Kitchen) of music school instructors played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, known for his role as obnoxious newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-man movies.

Andrew is in for a rude awakening when he first arrives in Mr. Fletcher’s class. However, his desire and stubborn determination to be the best is so strong that he will not be so easily discouraged from his goal, including having a cymbal thrown at him, relationship demands or well-meaning parental advice. 

Mr. Fletcher believes that “there are no two words more harmful than ‘Good job’” which indicates his philosophy that teachers/mentors should always encourage their students to continue to strive for better work and not to settle for anything less than their highest potential. The danger is that some people can be pushed too far and will not be able to live up to the instructor’s high expectations which may result in depression and suicide.

Whatever your opinion about nurturing talent or teaching techniques, this film is an eye opening wake-up call and a must-see for anyone wishing a career in the arts. The message is an important one. How much would we sacrifice and push ourselves to achieve our dreams? 

Visually, Whiplash lives up to its title with rapid fire close up snapshots of instruments, sheet notes and anguished concentrated faces edited together with heart pounding orchestra Jazz music that is absolutely riveting and mesmerizing.

Music and Jazz lovers will connect with the film’s hard hitting passionate love for the art form and pursuit of excellence. Everyone else will definitely get an education they won’t soon forget and be entertained at the same time. 

The performances are first rate especially that of J.K. Simmons as the instructor, who has been winning accolades and awards at every award show. His Oscar nominated performance is the surest bet to win this year for Best Supporting Actor award. 

You may need to check your ego for injuries after seeing this exceptionally brave and daring drama that will leave you transfixed and shell shocked. 

JP

Wild Tales

The slogan on the Spanish poster of the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) or Relatos Salvajes reads “We all have our animal side” and it certainly lives up to its promise of savage stories so rabid that they seem to be more closely related to the primal behavior of the animal kingdom. 

Oscar contender for Best Foreign film, Wild Tales is a collection of six short films that take place in various locations around present day Argentina with a running theme of how frustrated people in bizarre situations can explode, losing all civilized pretensions and inhibitions.

These daring revenge stories begin innocently enough; a casual conversation between travelers on an airplane, a waitress serving a patron in a roadside diner, a driver enjoying a scenic ride on a winding highway through the mountains, a demolition engineer picking up a birthday cake for his daughter’s birthday party, a newlywed couple enjoying their wedding reception, but these events suddenly erupt absurdly out of control beyond what anyone would imagine possible.

The violent tales of operatic mayhem are exhilarating, depicting such common frustrating occurrences in contemporary Argentine society as having your car towed for no reason and having to pay to get it back, or dealing with road rage when confronted by a driver who gets under your skin, or the corruption of the callous wealthy who have no regard for the less fortunate, or discovering your husband’s infidelity on your wedding day.

I’ve heard many stories or urban legends of the volatile Argentine temperament and the frustration with a corrupt justice system that prompt people to settle their own disputes often in violent ways. But until now I have not actually witnessed a depiction of what director Damián Szifrón from Buenos Aires has said he personally experienced in similar shocking situations.

The film is a high octane, often insanely hilarious and outrageous black comedy with Pulp Fiction (1994) inspired energy and humor but without using any guns. You almost expect Dick Dale’s surfer rock rendition of ‘Misirlou’ to play after the opening sequence. The mostly Spanish audience I saw it with, were in stitches from the opening segment to the end.

Visually, all the episodes are innovatively presented adding a bold visual dimension that gives the film a polished sophisticated look. But it’s clearly the authentic engaging performances by the ensemble cast that give the film its powerful satiric punch.

Two of my favorite segments, one called ‘Bombita’, stars the superb Argentine actor Ricardo Darin who is well-known for his roles in Nine Queens (2000), The Aura (2005), and The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). 

Another great segment involving road rage is called ‘Road to Hell’ and stars Leonardo Sbaraglia, who I recently saw in another Argentine film called Aire Libre (2014) – click on link to read my review - at the Toronto International Film Festival, is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see.

Wild Tales has been playing the festival circuit to enthusiastic crowds and critical acclaim around the world since it was first shown at the Cannes film festival in May 2014. Its intense brutal action stands out, making for a truly gripping experience that’s not afraid to show humans at our most vulnerable and barbarous.

Make this brilliant, hysterically courageous film a must-see and judge for yourself. It’s an unforgettable experience that will not disappoint.

JP

Begin Again

Bask in the warm glow of this exuberant feel-good romance. There are so many wonderful things going for this film including a great cast of actors who can sing, and singers who can act. This movie is not a musical but it is music driven and some characters do sing because they happen to be singer-songwriters performing in various New York locations.

If you loved Alan Parker’s soul music film The Commitments (1991), you will also love this movie. Both are about community and like-minded people and musicians from different walks of life coming together to make great music and a name for themselves while attaining new heights and reconciliation in their personal and professional lives.

A washed-up alcoholic middle aged New York music producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is fired from his job at the music studio he co-founded because he finds himself at odds with today’s changing corporate mind-set of a profit driven production environment that dominates the music business. 

Meanwhile, in another part of town, a young songwriter, Gretta (Keira Knightly), suddenly finds herself alone after being dumped by her longtime partner, a singer-songwriter on the verge of landing a major label, while in town to help him produce his new album.

Drowning their sorrows, these two sad souls both end up in the same bar one night. When Gretta is pressured onto the stage by her friends to sing one of her songs, she immediately draws the attention of Dan, who is entranced by her song and sees great potential in her. From there, these two people, who were at the bottom of their emotional strings, suddenly find new inspiration to be better than anyone would have imagined them capable of.

When his studio is unable to see the potential in Dan’s new prodigy, he decides to help her make a demo by gathering some backup musicians and recording her songs in outdoor locations around well-known parts of New York City. What follows is a spontaneous joyful musical journey of expression that’s inspiring to see and hear.

Begin Again has a great message about passion, the joys of music and being true to yourself while at the same time being extremely entertaining with lots of songs and great performances by a fun cast. It’s a satisfying film with genuine characters that’s also about how today’s music industry has changed to become a dishonest business taking the music away from its authentic artistic roots.

Written and directed by the Irish filmmaker John Carney, well known for another fine film about musicians, the Sundance Audience Award winner Once (2006), has once again given us an exceptional and inspiring charmer of two people coming together in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and is nominated at this year’s Oscars for Best Song – Lost Stars, performed by Adam Levine who plays Gretta’s ex-partner in the film.

Begin Again, like its characters and the songs they write, is a genuine soulful gem among the big studio hyped block busters that deserves our attention and will not disappoint those who seek it out and put their faith in this delightful little film from the heart.

JP

Force Majeure

A luxury ski resort with all the modern conveniences catering to a wealthy clientele nestled among the scenic snow covered mountain peaks of the French Alps, is the setting of a tumultuous anguished ski holiday for a modern Swedish family. 

Husband and father, Thomas played by Johannes Kuhnke, has taken some time off from his job to spend quality time with his wife Ebba, played by Lisa Loven Kongsli, and their two kids, enjoying some much needed relaxation and escape from the daily distractions of the modern rat race.

Soon after arriving, Tomas’ manhood and leadership is called into question as he comes under increasing attack and scrutiny by his wife and children after an impulsive slip in judgment has him abandoning them during a crucial moment of fear when they needed him most to be the alpha male protector. 

Force Majeure is the French name for an extraordinary event. It’s commonly used in contracts between two companies absolving both parties of liability if either party is unable to fulfill their obligations due to an unforeseeable or unavoidable crisis such as an earthquake, power failure, riot or strike etc.

Throughout Force Majeure, the ominous mountains loom over a collection of precarious ski lodges threaten to unleash the fury of an unexpected avalanche. We get a sense of impending danger among the towering altitudes overshadowing the vulnerable chalet buildings. Muffled sounds of distant explosives are heard echoing throughout the day and night in an effort to control the risk of a snow slide that will keep the skiers safe. 

Much like the cascading white storm which is the catalyst that causes a major crisis in the relationship of the vacationing Swedish couple, there is a lot of pent up anxiety and resentment under their calm icy exterior. Our seemingly typical nuclear family is showing signs of dysfunction, no longer conforming to our traditional preconceptions. 

Ebba has good reason to be concerned. She expects her husband to be the selfless protector and provider that men have been raised to emulate, but somewhere along the way our society has changed so much that we can no longer rely on those traditional role models from the past.

Director Ruben Östlund’s visual style deftly reveals the growing turmoil just beneath the surface through banal scenes of intimate routine and subtle non-verbal behavioral gestures.

Visually, Force Majeure is almost Kubrick-like in the way it uses titles as each day passes, showing still shots of a majestic primordial mountainscapes juxtaposed with formally framed designer interiors and manicured ski slopes accompanied by the repeating Vivaldi Concerto No. 2 in G Minor also known as ‘Summer’ from the Four Seasons. It’s almost like The Shining (1980) as we gradually witness the cracks forming in the family facade until it snaps and there’s a downward slide to a complete breakdown.

The family eventually comes to an uneasy conclusion that the patriarch is not without his faults and vulnerabilities. Under certain extraordinary circumstances, the marriage contract may be nullified, subject to the Force Majeure clause when either half may not behave as expected or provide the support they feel is required of them.

Winner of the prestigious Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival, the film asks revealing questions about masculinity and men’s roles in modern society, provoking stimulating conversations among couples.

JP

Big Eyes

If you had a wife with a talent for art, but who lacked the drive to promote herself and her work, which just happened to be your specialty, what would you do? 

Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s ode to the sensitive shy artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and the people who helped and took advantage of her. It’s a biographical film whose story is as strange and captivating as her paintings.

Keane’s unique trademark style consisted of eerie lost girls known as waifs with dark eyes as big as pancakes that looked straight out at the viewer. Margaret painted her subjects with oversized eyes so sad and lonely that they appeared out of all proportion to the rest of the faces that were sometimes set among dingy stark alleyways. 

The driving force behind the popularity of Margaret’s big eyed paintings in the 1950s and 60s is a charming self-promoter and plagiarist Walter Keane, played with relish by Chistoph Waltz - Django Unchained (2012), who claimed to be the creator of Margaret’s paintings, believing that people wouldn’t buy or pay as much for works by a female artist. 

Walter Keane’s crime was not that he promoted his wife’s work and made her paintings an international sensation, although some might argue that it was a crime of bad taste. His crime was that he insisted that he had painted them himself and then convinced his wife to play along by hiding the truth. 

What’s the harm in a little white lie if it brings riches beyond your imagination? After all, he was the one who had done all the promotional leg work, coming up with the ideas to get her paintings noticed by the biggest celebrities and they were both benefiting from all the fame and money coming their way. 

Tim Burton who is an avid collector of Margaret Keane’s popular doe eyed portraits has created a beautiful, sometimes hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable film which doesn’t even look much like a typical Tim Burton film.

Big Eyes is a movie that’s most like one of Burton’s other fun charming conman tales, Big Fish (2003); about a man child who’s living in an imaginary world of wonder. Some comparisons can also be drawn to the documentary My Kid Could Paint That (2007), a controversial story about a father who claimed that his 4 year old daughter was a prodigy who painted abstract art that sold for thousands of dollars.

Amy Adams plays the conflicted and frustrated artist who longed to be recognized for her talents but was kept isolated from her friends and family by her dominating husband to prevent her from revealing the fraud scheme and losing everything they’d achieved.

But it’s Christoph Waltz who almost steals the show with his charming maniacal performance as the sly manipulative Walter Keane, whose unfulfilled ambitions of being a famous artist drove him to plagiarize other's work instead.

Margaret painted from the heart and her prolific work acquired many admirers including Andy Warhol. She believed that the eyes were the window to the soul and she was able to express the essence of people and animals through her unique portraits. 

This film works as an eye opener that may anger and amaze those who are not familiar with the phenomenon of Margaret Keane’s influential surreal Big Eyes art. At 87 her passion for art continues and she is still painting today. 

JP

The Imitation Game

“Sometimes it’s the people that no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine”

This often repeated quote from the film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbach, is certainly an apt one for this story of British attempts to break the unbreakable Nazi Enigma code used by the Germans to communicate secret messages during W.W. II, which was cracked by a man with a passion for crossword puzzles.  

The story is a fascinating one that puts W.W. II’s allied victory over the forces of aggression in a whole new light, but I’m not sure this film does it justice. The focus of The Imitation Game is on the English mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, who not only broke the code but invented the forerunner of the modern computer in the process and was eventually recognized as the father of computer science. 

Like The Social Network (2010), the story is more about Alan Turing’s relationship or lack thereof with his colleagues and his strange anti-social nature, than it is about the Enigma machine or how Turing’s computation machine actually worked and helped to break the German codes. Either the movie doesn’t trust its audience or just isn’t interested with the technical aspects of the story and touches very little on the war itself and the bombing of England by Germany.

Realizing that solving the problem of cracking the enigma code, which changed every day with 590 million new permutations each day, had possibilities that were too numerous for anyone to figure out in a 24 hour period, Turing concentrated his efforts on building a giant calculator using alphabetical symbols that would be able to “break every code, every day, instantly”, using mathematical principals.

Extremely arrogant and condescending to his colleagues, but also brilliant, Turing is here portrayed as a British version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory or Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network (2010). He could be difficult to work with and had a single minded focus on cracking the code and thus winning the war.

The structure of the film, as with The Social Network, starts with a framing device that has Turing being interrogated by police after his arrest for indecent behavior in 1951, and we flash back as he tells the unusual story of his secret service during the war.

Using intelligence provided by Turing’s team, leaked disinformation and secret lies at the top levels of government the Allied forces eventually gained the upper hand, tipping the balance of the war in our favor. In the end it was a combination of elimination and luck that broke the code, but once it was cracked, the war still continued for years so as not to alert the Germans to the fact that their code had been discovered.

The film has a few too many clichéd dramatic devices and would probably have been better served by a more experienced director, but is helmed instead by Norwegian action director Morten Tyldum in his first big budget English film. 

Still, the film does an excellent job of dramatizing the lives of an intimate group of brilliant nerds stuck in a room agonizing over a solution that will end the war quickly while people are being killed by the thousands every day they failed.

JP

Point and Shoot

Part Boyhood (2014) and part Full Metal Jacket (1987), this extraordinary coming-of-age documentary follows a boy’s harrowing journey to manhood. We see him grow from naïve innocent kid to hardened revolutionary soldier choosing to put himself in the middle of the most dangerous Middle East conflict since the Iraq war.

The world is a scary and dangerous place, and so many of us have lost or given up on that time honored tradition of striking out on our own, making a name for ourselves in the world by going into the unknown and facing our fears.

But what if we had been less afraid and more courageous or foolish? Point and Shoot is the story of just such a person, Matthew Vandyke, raised in a middle class family in Baltimore, he is the sheltered only child of divorced parents and a pampered kid who had dreams of becoming the next Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker like many of us did.

His incredible quest for adventure and manhood would have been unthinkable even for the sanest and most physically conditioned thrill seeker, but for the scrawny Matthew, who is diagnosed with OCD, has strong phobias of causing harm to others and compulsively washes his hands, it's almost inconceivable.

Just out of University with a degree in Middle-Eastern studies, he decides to travel through all the Arab countries in North Africa on a 35,000 mile motorcycle trip, hoping the experience will make him into a man and the person he wants to be, while overcoming his phobias.

Matt admits to being inspired by his boyhood heroes he watched growing up on television and Hollywood movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Before he leaves on his quest, Matthew decides to give himself an alter-ego calling himself Max Hunter and buys a camera to document every aspect of his trip with himself as the hero.

He spends three years traveling the Arab nations and makes many strong friendships along the way, especially a good natured, easy going soulful hippie from Libya. While in Afghanistan he visits many of the places where American troops are deployed and helps by becoming a war correspondent. The troops take a liking to him and eventually train him in weapons use. Now Max starts to feel more like his movie heroes.

Matthew seems more serious about life than most and takes his friendships and his challenges seriously. So when revolution breaks out in Libya and his Libyan friends are describing the violence and murder that the ruthless dictator Muammar Gadaffi is inflicting on them while protesting, like Luke Skywalker he immediately feels he must go back and help them.

Academy Award nominated director Marshall Curry, known for If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) and Street Fight (2005), synthesized hundreds of hours of footage taken by Matthew on his travels and skillfully edited them into a compelling and riveting documentary.

Smuggling himself back into the now war-torn Libya, he manages to meet up with his friends. What follows is nothing short of incredible and shocking, giving us an intimate view of war and revolution in that country with unparalleled footage of the fall of a forty year totalitarian regime. The closest thing I can compare it to is another war documentary called BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge (2004) by Stephen Marshall.

Point and Shoot will leave you humbled and inspired, and is a fascinating commentary on the meaning of manhood, proving oneself by going out in the world isolated from family support, and finding ones identity through the power of images and associations with the people and cultures that become a part of our life.

JP

Nightcrawler

Watching Nightcrawler, as disturbing as it is, is like watch a slow motion car crash; you can’t take your eyes off it. In that sense the film itself is much like the darker uncontrollable side of human nature it tries to illuminate.

A self-absorbed loner, Louis Bloom, roams the deserted nocturnal Los Angeles streets for opportunities to make money from anything he can put his hands on. He is the Travis Bickle of the 21st Century working the sprawling urban West coast. There is nothing he won’t do or place he won’t go to succeed in life.

Louis, (Jake Gyllenhaal), unlike Travis from Taxi Driver (1976), has a gift for corporate gab and is completely self-educated on the home computer. But like Travis Bickle he also has a disdain for people and an obsession for one special woman in the corporate world he desires to be a part of, who may just be as unscrupulous as he is.

With an over-developed sense of purpose and a single-minded focus and drive, he has learned quickly what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and is fast-tracking himself into the highly competitive world of gathering on-the-scene disaster video footage. 

But Louis is no ordinary Videographer, he is a scavenger, a lean cutthroat hunter of bloody victims of shootings, stabbings and drunk drivers and he gets paid extremely well by the ever ravenous public appetite for tragic and graphic violent stories as they happen.

Tabloid media coverage of violence in the streets is to today’s viewers what the gladiatorial games must have been to Romans, and our appetite for graphic reality is still as strong as ever. 

Tracking police communications from his small used car with camera in hand, we get to see how Louis progresses from naïve amateur to ruthless capitalist. His skills quickly increase along with his ambitions as he learns from the other night crawlers around him and tries to out maneuver them to increase his own value and his video’s desirability. 

Soon he has a television news director, played by Rene Russo, salivating and eating out of his hands. But corporate lingo spouting Louis, who has taken entrepreneurialism to a whole new level, has even bigger plans than she can imagine.

Jake Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing and completely convincing as the creepy amoral Louis Bloom, having lost weight for the role to emulate the desperate coyote-like presence of the character.

As we watch this night urchin break every moral code, we as a society are outraged but at the same time enable him to continue. It’s strange as we try to decide who is worse; the criminal on the street causing pain and suffering, the media manipulation by the broadcasters or the scavenger who lurks unnoticed among us making a living off the misery of others? 

He’s not the kind of person you’d want to know or work for. He lives on the edge of our moral boundaries but at the same time he serves our human desire to see the worst in us during our worst moments. As Louis proudly states with a sincere smile on his face, “I'd like to think that if you’re seeing me, you are having the worst day of your life.”

JP