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, has taken some time off from his job to spend quality time with his wife, Ebba 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.

As the ominous mountains looming over the 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, the film 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

BIRDMAN

A surreal hallucinogenic riff on mid-life crisis, lost youth and a desperate attempt to regain relevance in an ever trending world, Birdman swoops in like a vulture picking away at the carcass of past glories with alternately hilarious and dazzling results.

The film takes place entirely in and around a famous old New York Broadway theater during the crazy maddening days of rehearsals and previews leading up to opening night. Much like Black Swan (2010) or The Dresser (1983), Birdman is one of those revealing backstage theater films that tackles the chaos and insecurities of a group of performers nervously preparing and trying to get their act together before the big night.

A young recovering addict asks an older character in the film “what would you want to do to me if you weren’t afraid?” The answer: “I would pluck out your eyeballs and put them in my head so I could see the world again the way I did when I was your age.”

That pretty much sums up the idea behind the story of a middle aged actor who once achieved fame for playing an iconic super hero, Birdman. He now struggles with his past to reinvent himself as a serious actor in a Broadway play which he wrote and directed.

In a desperate bid to shed his alter ego, Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) who is haunted by the voice in his head which sounds a lot like Batman, tries to launch a Broadway stage play to gain a more prestigious legacy as a serious thespian. Riggan, who seems to be out of touch with the new age of social media, wants desperately to be relevant again, to leave a lasting legacy he can be proud of the only way he knows how. 

Michael Keaton is perfectly cast here, as he was himself well-known for playing the legendary caped crusader Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), another iconic superhero with a cult fan base, and bares all to give a riveting performance.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is known for making films with multiple interweaving storylines and filming in the most authentic immersive locations, skillfully transporting us with vivid and inspiring cinematography in films like Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), has once again achieved an amazing technical and emotional feat with Birdman

Iñárritu, who just turned 51, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for Gravity (2013), shot this film in what appears to be one continuous unedited take, a la Russian Ark (2002). But far from feeling gimmicky it works wonderfully. Even while time passes as we follow the various characters through their experiences, at no time does the camera stop moving or cut from one moment to another. We hover and glide through hallways and doorways as we turn and follow from one character to the next without any noticeable edits. Only a few subtle transitions are apparent near the end.

The camera moves organically around people and rooms following multiple stories as if invisibly eavesdropping on them while the soundtrack keeps a continuous rolling, clashing rhythm of offbeat jazz drum riffs skillfully improvised and integrated into the natural flow of the film by solo drummer Antonio Sanchez.

This highly entertaining film is more than just a fascinating feat of inventive filmmaking; it also makes poignant comments on the subtle and not so subtle ways that we refuse to be marginalized, even as we slowly lose touch with and stop relating with the ever changing world around us.

JP

FURY

With Remembrance Day approaching, Fury reminds us of the sacrifices that were made by so many young men and women during W.W. II.

We haven’t seen such a blazing and sobering W.W.II film since Days of Glory (2007), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Defiance (2009), and there hasn’t been a tank film since Lebanon (2010). Tanks and tank footage are an integral part of many war films but now Fury brings W.W. II tank warfare to a whole new vivid level.

This is Das Boot (1982) with Tanks instead of U-Boats. We’re thrown in with a group of hardened American tank soldiers who have been fighting the Nazis from North Africa to D-Day landings in France and are now well into enemy territory; 1945 Germany, helping to give the final death blow that will end the war in Europe. But as Brad Pitt’s sergeant Collier says; ‘A lot more people have to die before that happens’

Director David Ayer, who brought us the excellent End of Watch (2012), delivers a worthy entry into the W.W.II war film from the Allied forces perspective. The story focuses on a young inexperienced battle shy recruit, Norman, who’s assigned to replace the tank gunner just killed in battle when the films opens and the effect it has on the rest of the group led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier.

Fighting the last remaining vestiges of desperate German resistance, while traveling from town to town, the Fury crew, who have a reputation for being the best at getting the job done, joins up with other armored tank divisions to liberate civilians who have been pressed into war by Hitler’s SS to defend the country.

As sergeant Collier takes the rookie Norman under his wing, he tries to teach him how to become a ruthless Nazi killer. The film is not afraid of showing us the brutal horrors of war, not shying away from the questionable morals of men pushed beyond their limits and some not so heroic behavior that may violate some of our common perceptions of the war. 

We get to know the tank soldiers intimately as they maneuver their death machine to destroy the enemy from inside a heavily armored hellish steel tight box on tracks. Working together like a well-oiled machine is the only thing keeping them alive. Their leader, the seasoned battle-scared Wardaddy, will stop at nothing to kill every last enemy but the violence he has witnessed seems to be taking their toll on him. 

Fury gives us a hair-raising tanks-eye-view of the war from inside the confines of an actual Tiger I W.W. II Tank. The images are violent and graphic but always authentic with an eye and feel for the time and the horrendous reality of fighting in tank warfare using real Sherman tanks. 

The spectacular fire power of the tanks is matched only by the strong emotional performances of the whole cast who clearly show extreme dedication in their mesmerizing portrayals that genuinely draws us into the human conflict. 

This gripping war drama keeps the suspense and the action coming at a steady unwavering pace. Memorable set pieces include a tank battle showdown with a German Panzer facing off with four Allied Sherman tanks and a tense confrontation between the tight-knit Fury crew after they enter a town held by fanatical Nazis who are using children to fight. 

Fury is well worth seeing for the intense grisly action and suspenseful drama set in a historically important time.

JP           

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred- Foot Journey is a feast for the eyes and heart. Film making has so much in common with great cooking and Swedish director Lasse Hallström is a master chef among film makers, choosing all the perfect ingredients to make this film the most palatable it can be for its audience.

After tragedy strikes a family from Mumbai India with a long illustrious reputation of cooking traditional Indian dishes, they are forced to move to Europe seeking a new home where they will re-establish their trade mark culinary excellence. 

Hallström is no stranger to satisfying comfort films having directed such appetizing feel good films as Chocolat (2000), Cider House Rules (1999) and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). 

After a long arduous trek through several countries looking for a place with just the right culinary vibe, they eventually stumble across a quaint rural French village where the local market bursts with exceptionally fresh locally grown produce. 

Based on the best-selling debut novel by Richard C. Morais, the story is a sumptuous banquet blend of Ratatouille (2007), Chocolat (2000) and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), stunningly filmed in the picturesque medieval country villa of St.-Antonin-Noble-Var in southern France.

Papa (Om Puri), the family patriarch immediately decides that this is the place to set up their new Indian curry house and sets to work creating a magical Indian palace that exudes spicy aromas wafting on the evening breeze right across the street into a long standing posh French fine dining restaurant. They quickly find themselves at war with the owner Madam Mallory (Helen Mirren), over cultural differences and the battle of tastes begins.

This is definitely a foodie film and a very good one too, with culinary clashes fusing traditional French cuisine spiced up with exotic Indian fare. So if you go in before having lunch or dinner you may find yourself coming out with a mouthwatering craving for Indian and French cuisine.

The garish bright and loud new Indian eatery does not sit well with the reserved local residents whose tastes are not used to the heavily spiced Indian dishes and the new restaurant suffers from lack of interest, but Papa has a few secret ingredients up his sleeve that will give his French rivals some real competition. 

An enchanting romantic fairy tale, this flavorful experience will leave you satisfied that you’ve cultivated your senses. Much effort was made to make the food, kitchens and cooking techniques look absolutely authentic and the scenic photography of charming old world villages will make you salivate as much as the orgasmic gastronomy on display. 

The film touches on many contrasting philosophical views of life; rural village vs. big city, traditional vs. innovation, sophistication vs. fun loving, modern vs. vintage, and money vs. passion, it all gives the film a visual dichotomy and food for thought.

Whatever your tastes, you will enjoy the rich, luscious emotional smorgasbord on offer and leave with fond visions of a unique toothsome film experience. 

JP                                   

Tokyo Fiancée

Tokyo Fiancée is a fun romantic cross-cultural charmer adapted from the autobiographical novel by Amélie Nothomb and based on her own personal experiences during the time she spent in Japan in 1989.

Obsessed with all things Japanese, Amélie (Pauline Etienne), a young adult in her 20s from Belgium, who was actually born in Japan, has just returned to the country where her heart is and where she feels most at home.

This film is a humorous heartwarming look at Japanese culture through the eyes of a bubbly wide-eyed westerner as Amélie goes on a personal journey of discovery and enlightenment. 

Pauline Étienne’s innocent comic performance is so captivating with her exuberant smile, pixie cut and stylish European fashion, that she keeps the viewer enthralled throughout the film. With the intention of making a life in Japan she begins working as a French tutor, giving private lessons to wealthy Japanese boys.

Tokyo Fiancée is very much a story of a flourishing romance between Amélie and one of her Japanese students, Rinri (Taichi Inoue). During their French lessons Rinri takes Amélie on tours to various parts of Tokyo to educate her about Japanese culture, and soon an awkward romantic connection between the two begins to blossom. 

Their romance quickly deepens further than expected given the culture clashes and Rinri’s disapproving parents. Western women are seen as too independent for Japanese men. But can they really overcome the ideological gap in their personalities to sustain a lasting relationship? 

If you enjoy romantic travel  and soul searching films like Lost in Translation (2003) or The Lover (1992), which are personal accounts of a secret romance abroad while discovering exciting and unusual new cultures, this is the film for you.

One of the funniest parts in the film is when she and Rinri go out one night with another expat and her Japanese boyfriend and a natural role reversal occurs when the couples are shown from the women’s perspective and the boys follow them like two puppies.

Amélie must do some deep soul searching of her own to find out how she really feels about Rinri after he proposes to her and she decides to go on a long solitary hiking trip to Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area to find some answers, leaving Rinri back in Tokyo.

The film captures the unique Japanese style of living and the charming village atmosphere of close-knit urban neighborhoods but also the sometimes difficult and lonely experience of living in a foreign country. As much as she loves Japan, Amélie loves her freedom and struggles with the idea of being tied down in a traditional marriage.

This is a delightful clash of cultures comedy that’s a thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable experience.

JP

A Girl at My Door

A Girl at My Door, the remarkable first feature film from Korean director July Jung is a brave and sharply observed drama about the ugly side of small town prejudices and thought-provoking inconvenient truths. 

We are introduced to a seaside fishing village on the Korean coast through the eyes of a newly arrived police chief, Young-nam from the capital city of Seoul.  She comes with her own psychological baggage after being reassigned but is determined to keep a low profile until she can return to the city.

This exceptional film keeps us completely entranced by the intensely captivating performances of Doona Bae as the new police chief and the story of a sullen ten year old girl, Do-Hee, who she finds wandering through the village late at night.

Curious about this glum girl’s strange behavior in her tattered clothes, Young-nam soon finds herself running to Do-Hee’s defense when the local kids, her drunken stepfather and crazy grandmother are regularly seen beating and abusing the defenseless girl.

There are many social issues that are touched on in this film about domestic violence and the state’s responsibility to protect children from abusive families. Korean films in general are well known for making jabs at Government incompetency and this film is no exception. 

The story is carefully set up from Young-nam’s perspective and we slowly discover more about the psychological damage the girl has suffered as she comes to seek refuge with the new police chief who is forced to take her in for a while to protect her from the village and her family.

Doona Bae brings the same intensity and piercing stare that she brought to her bow and arrow wielding character in The Host (2006). She is mesmerizing as we watch her battle with her inner conflicts and the town’s local bullies who seem to take pleasure in abusing the motherless Do-Hee.

Much like the fishing villages of Newfoundland that was so beautifully portrayed recently in The Grand Seduction (2014), A Girl at My Door was filmed in actual fishing villages around the Korean coastline and we get a sense of these insular communities and the small town politics that prevail there. 

Do-Hee quickly flourishes under Young-nam’s loving care and grows into a happy child over the summer vacation, but she must eventually return to her own home. And when Young-nam’s past comes back to haunt her, the only one who can protect the vulnerable Do-Hee is eventually arrested and the desperate girl is forced to take matters into her own hands.

The film makes a powerful statement about how the social system, like any government agency, fails the people they are there to protect in spite of their best intentions and is vulnerable to manipulation. 

July Jung is a powerful new voice in Korean cinema who I anticipate will be a force to watch. One of the best films at TIFF14.

JP

PRIDE

This delightful, uplifting, life affirming, British crowd-pleaser is the most fun you’ll have at the cinema this year. 

PRIDE is the true story of a genuine friendship and solidarity between the unlikeliest of people. During a bitter workers strike that saw a small Welsh mining community battling against the heavy handed Thatcher government’s closing of mines in 1984, an improbable ally came to their aide during their time of need.

Along the same inspirational feel-good lines as Billy Elliot (2000), and The Full Monty (1997), we follow similar UK working class folk finding themselves in unexpected circumstances that will challenge everyone’s preconceptions, opening their eyes and hearts to a whole new world, and creating life-long bonds between two oppressed communities.

Joe, a young shy teenager just discovering his sexuality and living in a conservative middle class family, suddenly finds himself pulled into a political conflict, attracted by a fun charismatic group of queer activists. The young passionate leader Mark, seeing a common plight against prejudice and injustice, leads the rag tag band of partying activists to take up the cause of miners in a small Welsh village they have never met and decide to help raise funds and share their years of experience fighting against government abuses.

Nestled in the remote picturesque rolling hills of Welsh country side, an ultra-conservative community is suffering under increasing pressure to give up their fight for what they believe, and are soon suffering as they find themselves cut-off from government social assistance, literally being starved back to work. The unions seem to be of little help but the unexpected kindness and assistance by what many consider to be deviants, perverts and worse may be too humiliating to accept.

It is said that ‘prejudice can’t survive proximity’ and in this shout out loud hilarious heart felt drama, friendship and good will goes a long way toward bridging differences and forging strong bonds when the small group of city activists from London decides to travel to South Wales and meet the families of the miners suffering under strong-arm tactics of the Thatcher government.

The message is as relevant today as it was at the time of the actual events thirty years ago. When the chips are down, that’s when you find out who your friends are. When the young group of radical city gays and lesbians take their first hesitant steps into the stark remote archaic Welsh village, they are as afraid and uncertain as the town’s folk are of them.

With all the awkwardness and hilarity of two people who want nothing to do with each other but find themselves coming together to fight a common enemy, and with classic 80s dance music by popular pop bands of the time like Bronski Beat, Culture Club, and Billy Idol, they gradually begin to accept and appreciate each other. 

There are superb comic performances by the British ensemble cast led by English greats like Bill Nighy – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), Imelda Staunton – Vera Drake (2004), Maleficent (2014) and Paddy Considine – Submarine (2010).

Don’t walk, march to the nearest cinema and cry and laugh with joy at every moment of this fabulous film. Look for PRIDE opening in select cinemas September 26 and now playing at TIFF14; Toronto International Film Festival.

JP

Aire Libre

Aire Libre is a raw honest depiction of a marriage between a middle class Argentine couple, Lucia and Manuel, trying to build a life together with their young son, which slowly disintegrates under the mundane banality of everyday life. The conflicts slowly build up without acknowledgement until tempers flare, eventually culminating in an explosive confrontation.

The film is a scathing critique on marriage and asks tough questions about the viability of staying in a long term relationship with one person and the possibility of happiness within a monogamous partnership.

The attractive actors give exceptionally intimate performances that look spontaneous and make us feel like intruders in a couple’s most private moments. The sexual moments are not sensual but are meant to show the emotional distance growing between them.

This couple has big plans to renovate a newly purchased house that will become their dream home, but the dream slowly dissolves as the dysfunction between them grows and the house falls apart like their marriage. They literally grow apart from each other and seem unable to come to any common ground, as much as we want to see them achieve their dreams.

Director Anahí Berneri uses the camera to give the effect of an intimate fly-on-the-wall style documentary that helps give the film a personal quality. 

There are no easy answers to marriage’s many problems but the film can be seen as a cautionary tale depicting many of the little annoyances in every relationship, and how they are brought to bear and gradually build to a point, if not acknowledged, that it comes to a destructive and tragic end, bringing out the worst qualities in people despite the best of intentions. 

The film takes its time to show us a complete life between two people and their young son and moves along at a steady sometimes tedious pace, which is the point of the film I would say. But like Boyhood (2014), the moments eventually grow into more than the sum of its parts and the dramatic ending is a poignant and satisfying one.

Aire Libre had its world premiere at the TIFF 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. 

JP

Jeune & Jolie

Young & Beautiful (2013), a provocative new French film by director François Ozon, Swimming Pool (2003) and Potiche (2010), that explores our universal obsession with youth and sex, is a coming of age tale about seventeen year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) from middle-class divorced parents, who is drawn into a world of prostitution with elderly male clients. 

North American and English cinema tends to be uncomfortable with nudity and explicit sex acts within a family setting; American Beauty (1999) and Fish Tank (2009) come to mind as examples of taboo subject matter that did not sit well with audiences. So we are taken aback by the more open attitudes toward nudity and sexuality in European and especially French cinema, regarding it as exploitation at best and pornography at worst rather than art. 

In the opening scenes of Young & Beautiful we see Isabelle as a normal teenager on vacation with her family at a summer beach resort. She wants to have her first sex experience with a boy, but when she finally decides the time is right and is disappointed by her lack of emotional connection, she begins a journey of self-discovery that will alienate her from her family and friends. 

As with the recent Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), there are some explicit sex scenes, but here there is a disturbing sense of unease and danger as the inexperienced Isabelle, so young and naïve, finds herself alone and vulnerable with men much older than her.

Driven by a desire for acceptance and independence, she is proud that she’s taken her first steps into new adult world where her youth and beauty are highly valued and admired. Using her newly found sexual power and mature look, she eventually finds herself becoming an in-demand prostitute with a wealthy clientele of older men looking for discrete sex.

The film is a fascinating study into modern social issues surrounding sex, adolescence and family responsibilities in contemporary European society. Isabelle’s ability to emotionally disconnect from the people she has sexual relations with, allows her to continue meeting her rich clients in high end hotel rooms without imposing any moral judgments on herself.

She seems to enjoy her new found identity and acceptance into this mysterious world of power and wealth as we follow Isabelle navigating a precarious course between her relationship with her younger brother and family life at home, her class mates at school, and her secret rendezvous as a high class call girl, as if it’s just a normal part of her new life.

The film is stylishly depicted with stunning photography and natural performances in authentic Paris locations. There is a voyeurism that comes across from following this striking young girl around through her daily routine and we are drawn in by the contrast and contradiction of a seemingly normal teenager’s life and the darker world of men’s sexual fantasies.

American reaction to this film is often to question the director’s motives or intentions for making such a film, but they seem to be unaware or discount the cultural disparity of French society. French cinema and François Ozon in particular tends to be more adventurous with sexual politics and family issues.

Eventually Isabelle’s secret world comes crashing down as she discovers her vulnerability and those of her clients and family. Her inability to deal with, or even see the dangers of her double life, takes her to a place she was not prepared for as she must now face the consequences. 

JP

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), a reboot of the phenomenally successful Planet of the Apes saga (1968 - 1973) that included five movies, a TV series, an animated series and a merchandising bonanza, is a worthy Apes story that improves on its predecessor with a humanist socio-political message and a strong anti-gun stance. 

On the edge of a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, ape leader Ceasar’s band of intelligent simians is surviving the only way they know how, by hunting and living in the forest, whereas humans are quickly declining in numbers and desperately clinging to life in small pockets around the globe.

The filmmakers have once again made a smart suspenseful film that’s dedicated to the emotional life of the characters and respects the spirit of the original thought provoking films.

It’s a precarious time for both humans and apes, taking place ten years after the previous film, it’s a time where mankind has all but disappeared from the earth which now looks like the History channel’s Life after People series with buildings and streets in ruins, decaying and slowly being reclaimed by wilderness. A time between the decline of humanity and the rise of the Apes who will eventually emerge as the dominant species on the planet.

After a virus has wiped out most of the human population except for a few who have a genetic immunity, Ceasar’s ape colony has grown in numbers and living in a lush ape-topian forest canopy, experimenting with the beginnings of language and a moral code of ethics that may eventually lift them out of their primitive past.  “Ape shall not kill Ape” 

The look of the apes in this film has been refined to such an unparalleled level of realism and is so convincing that the character of Caesar is completely captivating as a being caught between two worlds but not totally belonging in either. All the ape characters are unique and interact seamlessly with the humans.

Caesar has distinguished himself as a strong, natural leader and role model for the burgeoning ape colony, and the evolved apes have managed to live in peace until they accidentally come in contact with a group of armed human survivors bent on winning back what was lost. 

Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, has become somewhat of a cult legend among sci-fi and fantasy fans for being the go-to-guy for motion capture characters like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 - 2003), King Kong in King Kong (2005), Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin (2011), a consultant on Godzilla (2014) and gives a mesmerizing performance here as the brooding simian leader who now also has the responsibility of raising a family of his own.

The desperate band of humans bring with them an arsenal of weaponry and are eager to repair a hydro electrical power generator that will restore some much needed human conveniences. But the generators that need repair are in ape controlled territory and the apes are not about to trust the humans or allow them anywhere near their families, knowing all too well their racist, selfish and destructive tendencies. 

This theme has been a constant throughout the Apes saga from the very beginning. It was the destructive and war like nature of man that caused his destruction and lead to the domination of apes in the original films and it continues to be a prominent theme here in the latest installment of the popular saga. There are some striking parallels here especially with the final film of the original saga, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).

One sympathetic human, Malcolm, slowly befriends Caesar, appealing to his sense of brotherhood and cooperation for mutual benefit.  But joining forces with the humans doesn’t sit well with the rest of the ape clan, particularly one of Caesars’s most loyal apes, Koba, who holds a strong grudge and mistrust of humans after being subjected to inhumane laboratory experiments.

The mistrust of human motives is well founded more often than not, and the epic struggle between two tribes begins….again.

JP