The Film Gang

Mr. Turner

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony, above.

2015 Oscar Nominated Shorts

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Listen above, and read David H. Anthony’s story below.

Each year the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes on short films in two categories, animated and live action. Last year’s entries were discussed
separately by me and my colleague, Dennis Morton. Today I assess some Oscar nominated animated entries.

The animated shorts were subdivided into two segments, animated shorts and additional animated shorts, totaling 10 films in all. Animated films represent a wide range of visual possibilities, from dazzling imagery to relatively simply sketched, plot-driven originals. There is something for everyone in this set, films awash in color and spare chiaroscuro creations, heavy on dark and light, using sequences evoking the era of black and white. Some have dialogue while others do not. Some feature human figures while others are like fables, with animals appearing with human characteristics, with or without words.

My hands down favorite was Me and My Moulton by Torill Kove, a 14 minute Canada/English offering. Me and My Moulton is narrated by a young Norwegian middle child who with her siblings are children of artist parents who ultimately give her a gift representing something the parents really want and would have bought for themselves, a Moulton bicycle. In telling this tale the viewer sees a slice of life for the society shown.

In the same category but at the other extreme in form is The Dam Keeper, an 18 minute short by Robert Kondo and “Dice” Daisuke Tsutsumi. This is a non-dialogue narrated subject that concentrates on transporting audience members to the domain of a porcine dam keeper who is responsible for protecting his Holland-like village from flooding. This is a fable. The dam keeper attends school during the day along with other animals, but has only one acquaintance who treats him as a friend, Fox. Fox sketches caricatures of his teacher and others and eventually comes to Pig’s aid when he is bullied. Through the interplay of a lush soundtrack that captures the triumphs and travails of adolescence and the wordless sounds of the characters, The Dam Keeper is a tender rumination on friendship and community as the Dam Keeper takes revenge on those who rejected him. The Dam Keeper is far more poignant than I have suggested and that is why it should be seen.

A short short is the 2 minute The Single Life by Netherlanders Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen. This extremely concentrated work is based upon a deceptively simple conceit, the changes that occur in a woman’s life as she listens to a vinyl record. Moving the tone arm back and forth alters time itself, covering all the stages of her life.

These are only a few examples of what is in store in this package. I enjoyed these short animated features enormously. They are only available in short duration screenings. Try to get to see them. You will find them well worth the effort.

Top Five

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As the holiday season closes another cinematic year, film producers, directors, stars, their agents, publicists and other movers and shakers jockey for position in advance of Oscars. Behind the image makers lie real human beings striving to live actual lives off stage, off script often fighting the same horrible demons as audiences seeing their screen personae.

The Top Five of the title references one’s musical favorites in order of importance and/or influence, chiefly in hiphop. Chris Rock’s latest work traces recent episodes in the career of Andre Allen, a black stand-up comic who transitioned to film farce and now wishes to recreate himself. Like Birdman, it tells a tale of the difficulty of transcending typecasting.

But Top Five is no burnished Birdman. It echoes an insistent cry from African-American artists in film, theater and other performing and creative arts to be seen and heard on their own terms and not merely in the sterile niches to which they may be consigned in popular imagination and by moneyed moguls who call the shots in film factories like Hollywood.

Top Five speaks directly to a particular demographic. Flowing from Chris Rock’s own experience it revolves around a world that may be reduced to the distance between New York and Los Angeles, centering on what it takes to achieve and retain star status. More to the point, it shows black and urban youth culture as the hiphop nation hits middle age.

Top Five is as black as it can be, starting with the effortless string of “n-word” epithets peppering the film’s first half. I lost count after what seemed a half a hundred, but also vividly recall a time growing up in New York when such speech was not foreign to me.
By contrast, there are references to a film within a film, a bold saga of Haitian rebellion.

Dre, as Andre is familiarly known, has made a film called Uprize! detailing the saga of Dutty Boukman, a Haitian slave who became a leader of the insurrection against France.
Making the film was a risky venture for Allen and it symbolizes the analogue of breaking free from the fetters firmly binding him as he seeks to recreate himself as a liberated man.

Rock is joined by Rosario Dawson, J. B. Smoove and a host of luminaries, predominantly albeit not exclusively African-American, whose faces will be instantly recognizable, from movies and television. Top Five may say much more than its cover story or its marketers. Finding this takes conscientious effort by viewers. Then the work can disclose its secrets.

The Theory of Everything

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The life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking, as seen through the eyes of Jane Wilde, his first spouse, which formed the basis of her memoir Travelling to Infinity, My Life with Stephen, is the subject of the film The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh, with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based upon Wilde’s book.

Eddie Redmayne is Hawking, while Felicity Jones portrays Jane in a reconstruction of key events marking their coupling, marriage and ultimate uncoupling as Hawkings struggled with Jane’s help to cope with the crippling effects of motor neuron disease. The two great tales unfolding simultaneously and interdependently are of a love then marital relationship and Hawking’s meteoric rise to prominence as an innovative scientific theorist, starting with research into Black Holes as a route to determining whether time had a beginning to the quest for what the title suggests, a theory to explain existence.

The gift of the film is its ability to take on the heady stuff of physics and then balance it with romance, propelled by the electricity of the lead actors. Redmayne and Jones are assisted by David Thewlis as Hawking’s Cambridge mentor physicist Dennis Sciama and Simon McBurney and Emily Watson as Hawking’s mother and father. Special mention should go to Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a choirmaster and caretaker who played a decisive role in the lives of Stephen and especially Jane.

Redmayne’s transformations, first into Hawking, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, and then from ostensibly able-bodied to grievously afflicted patient then highly dependent man whose intellect is unfettered by the chains of infirmity is really remarkable. Redmayne is able to capture oceans of emotion in a knowing wink, sly smile or lascivious leer to remind us that however things may look, he is very much engaged in the here and now.

The film does not shy away from the hard questions posed by the circumstances in which Hawkings and Wilde find themselves. How does one create and sustain what can be considered a “normal” existence, in the face of such monumental challenges? Yet Jane and Stephen do raise progeny under extraordinarily trying conditions, and Hawkings continues to work, at great expense to everyone around him. While this unavoidably situates Hawkings the innovator in the pantheon of the great, it is clear that his stature could not have been reached without the support of Jane and others.

The Theory of Everything affords much food for thought. It will not leave viewers wanting.

Rosewater

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A Most Wanted Man

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Months after his untimely death in February of this year, the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to capture the imaginations and hearts of moviegoers. This is clear from his first moments on screen in A Most Wanted Man, the latest film adaptation of a John Le Carré espionage thriller. Set in post 9-11 Germany, it trades militant Islamism for Communism in a neo Cold War combat between the West and The Rest. Hoffmann is Günther Bachmann, a German operative in a dark force functioning in deep cover. He must unravel and counteract a potential threat posed by a Muslim Chechen torture victim who is seeking to connect with an articulate intellectual interlocutor. This interlocutor may or may not be financially implicated in money laundering ventures bankrolling arms purchases for nefarious purposes. Given the contemporary geopolitical situation, little about the plot is surprising. It is predictable, with righteously motivated quasi-simpatico villains and flawed would-be heroes, Le Carre’s formula. What holds viewer attention are the ways in which characters interact in what can seem yet another cynically played high stakes game of chess with the ‘Free World’ as its prize.

Consistent with Le Carrés vision, we are frequently left wondering who is free, if anyone. The entities arrayed in A Most Wanted Man, are local, national and global. They are caught in ceaseless competition between separate security services ostensibly engaged in a common purpose. But they are unrelentingly as ruthless in their internal rivalries with one another as with their state and non-state adversaries. The story inevitably involves finance capital and its role in making all things possible in this case a means for Willem Dafoe to showcase his penchant for moral ambiguity. Homayun Ershadi of Kite Runner fame is a puzzling presence. Robin Wright exemplifies American assurance and is almost as arresting as Hoffmann in her appearances as the face of a still very strong superpower projecting itself.

Le Carré is especially good at complicating characters by conferring upon them crises of conscience. Much like Tinker Tailor’s George Smiley, Bachmann recognizes that the other side has legitimate grievances and never loses sight of this fact while doing his duty. He does not think himself or his job virtuous, only nastily necessary and is all too aware of his own flaws and foibles, reminding himself of his failings whenever others are not ensuring that they do not escape his or their consciousness.

Bachmann has many enemies: His own doubts, his opponents’ capacities to make mayhem, and the sinister certitude of crusading colleagues and compatriots. This quality of self-questioning keeps our attention and moves the film along even when talk overrides action sequences. A Most Wanted Man is not so much a whodunit as a how to deal with it. Even so, it must be read carefully. What is being communicated when a central character whose function is to counsel interfaith tolerance and dialogue is exposed as an agent fueling hostilities? What does that say about those sincerely pursuing peace through communication?

Bachmann is the foil for the spy who understands himself and others to be going through the motions of saving the world when there are no winners or losers, but we who watch may draw different conclusions. The film runs the real risk of reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as inscrutable “others” who are implacable foes of non-Muslims. Le Carré succeeds at humanizing his protagonists and antagonists, but we as viewers owe it to ourselves and them to demystify his ordinary every day subjects, not as rogues in sleeper cells waiting to awaken and pounce upon innocents in subways, markets or shopping malls, but as regular people, a minority of whom may well at times resort to extreme measures in response to perceived provocations. After all most people are just trying to live their lives.

Jersey Boys

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Jersey Boys, A Film By Clint Eastwood.

If it’s challenging to try to bring a hit musical to the screen, it can be no less vexing to evaluate such an adaptation. Broadway smash hit Jersey Boys, based on a book co-authored by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and reconfigured as a Clint Eastwood film, has already made a big splash, as far as publicity goes. It needs no further hype or buzz. John Lloyd Young, who created a memorable stage version of real-life elfin doo-wop falsetto icon Frankie Valli, reprises his role for this motion picture.

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Two Films: The Girls in the Band & Particle Fever

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The Girls in the Band
This has been quite a fertile post-Oscar film season, illustrated by two well-paced documentary films to be screened locally for short stints of one week each. The first is The Girls in the Band, by Judy Chaikin. The Girls in the Band begins with a shot of the famous photo called A Great Day in Harlem, in which the principal living legends of the jazz tradition assemble for a historic photo in front of a Harlem Brownstone. The shot was taken by Art Kane, a freelance photographer, for Esquire magazine in 1958. It was so important that it later became the basis of a 1994 film.

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12 Years A Slave

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Above review by David H. Anthony