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Anime at its best!, 9 December 2014

"Being a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be." Princess Diana

Who would have thought bamboo could produce such a delicate beauty as a princess (voice of Chloe Grace Moretz)? In the hands of the Japanese Studio Ghibli, director Isao Takahata has crafted a rival story of his colleague in that same studio, Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises). The 10th-century tale of a princess found in a bamboo shoot carries enough contemporary relevance to keep grad students in theses for a decade.

This lovely and exciting Japanese anime sports the usual and still beautiful charcoal–watercolor motif (you'll want to linger with the plum blossoms) accompanied by Joe Hisaishi's fitting pastoral, woodland music. The surprisingly simple theme--like Dorothy and ET, she needs to get home--has multiple strains of narrative, not the least of which shows a loving adoptive mother and father (Mary Steenburgen and James Caan), who try to give her everything a princess could want only to fail to give her a most important treasure, her friends and relatives in her far away home.

The lack of maudlin longing and her affection for her adoptive home make this unusual storytelling because it does not pander to the expectations of the audience. When the princess abjures the stylistic and cosmetic changes to make her look like a princess (her dad has, after all, bought her into royalty and she needs to look like one), she evidences the rebellious attitude of teens everywhere and anytime.

Although violence could have been a legitimate element of this story, there is none; although a sappy romance with a handsome prince could have been warranted, there is none; although Kaguya could have been too sweet, she is not. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautifully told story in the best Japanese tradition.

"My mom won't let anyone treat me like a little princess." Chloe Grace Moretz

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Rough-hewn Tommy and Tough Hilary. Great Combo, 4 December 2014

"Miss Cuddy. I appreciate the offer, the supper, the concert and all. But I cannot marry you, will not, won't. I ain't perfect but you are too bossy and too damn plain." Bob Giffin (Evan Jones)

That piece of dialogue spoken to a decidedly attractive Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy (she can try to be plain, but that's not possible), from the intense and interesting The Homesman, captures the plight of women who moved West in the 19th century: If they can survive, prosperity will be minimal or elusive; if they are plain and independent, then they will be alone as her Mary Bee Cuddy is.

The overall theme of the difficulties moving west is movingly depicted in writer/director Tommy Lee Jones's film, which depicts Cuddy and seedy George Briggs (Jones) transporting three women who have lost their minds from the Nebraska Territory back East to a parsonage that can help them. In a way, it's reverse Westward Ho and feminism, a testimony to the challenges women have always encountered, from infant deaths to abusive husbands and dim-witted single men (see the introductory quote).

As if to emphasize the thematic frustrations, Cuddy asks two men to marry her, both unworthy, and they both refuse (see quote). Heck, the same accomplished woman would have similar problems with men today who still see female ambition a danger. Jones has made that bridge to today a convincingly difficult journey—two steps forward, one step back.

Jones as actor is still hypnotically gruff and tough, a role he does better than any other actor I can think of. He played a younger rebellious ruffian in an adaptation of a Faulkner short story, Barn Burning, decades ago, and he is just as convincingly recalcitrant as an old man. When he and Swank face off, there is no doubt we are watching Oscar winners.

The Homesman is as slow sometimes as the wagon transporting the women. The dialogue is spare because Jones lets the barren Nebraska Territory do the talking about hardship. Although Briggs comes alive and likable when he encounters some sybarites (including an unlikable James Spader) in a hotel east of nowhere, he is as always gruff on the outside with a warm interior well hidden until it is needed later on.

The set design is curiously antiseptic with authentic Victorian houses and primitive dirt homes, yet all clean as if kept by Shakers. However, it is a film about the passage of women, so their civilizing influence will be present but not as much as you might expect. It's still rough out there whether the women are competent or crazy.

Happy Valley (2014/II)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A winner doc even if no one in it is one., 3 December 2014

"St. Joe": What Penn State, College Station, and the world called Joe Paterno before the Jerry Sandusky indictment.

No one ever called my town, Columbus, "Happy Valley," but when Ohio State defeats Michigan, it's a happy valley indeed. That euphoria over a football program as successful as Penn State under head coach Joe Paterno with its spell cast so widely is the engine that drives a community to miss the signs of crime such as assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's abuse of young boys.

Amir Bar-Lev's documentary, Happy Valley, covers the historical bases of Sandusky's conviction on multiple counts and Paterno's eventual firing (and death a few months later) for not doing more to bring justice for the abused boys. Even Sandusky's adopted son, Matt, who is the most talking head in the doc, waits until boys have testified against Sandusky to confess he lied—he was abused.

That confession is at the heart of this slowly competent documentary, for it encapsulates the ambivalence of a community so mesmerized by football and its cast of characters that it takes a while to acknowledge some of the actors have feet of clay. Sandusky is easy—he was seen in the showers with boys—but Paterno, the beatified coach (the statue on campus is now gone, as if he were Hussein or Stalin), challenges their understanding of a morality that extends beyond just legally telling a superior about an incident, as Paterno did.

Bar-Lev's is as even-handed as could be: the media is held up to harsh light with its aggressive, predatory pursuit of the sensational; the NCAA is never fair enough; and the University, from president on down, can't get it just right.

And so it goes—this well done doc, despite the sometimes vacant talking heads, shows few participants not caught up in the hoopla. It sure makes me think Ohio State's Jim Tressel dust up was just a skirmish in an enduring battle for the hearts and souls of students and the communities where they live.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Girls will be girls!, 3 December 2014

"We must be careful not to discourage our twelve-year-olds by making them waste the best years of their lives preparing for examinations." Freeman Dyson

This girl punk band is definitely not the best, but their story is one of the best little films you will see about adolescence, its ennui, and its creativity. Three young girls around 12 are stereotypically bored with their parents and in love with rock n roll, out of which love they transcend their soporific life by forming a band.

If for nothing else, We are the Best! is exclaiming the transformative power of music to lift spirits and connect with the world, this time outside of Stockholm in 1982, when singing about Brezhnev and Reagan and the danger of nuclear anything makes electric music and connects young, disaffected pseudo-punk girls with excitement and a small part of the outside world.

The actresses are natural, attractive, and invested in being adolescents although I suspect they long ago passed 12 years old. Director Lucas Moodysson, adapting his wife, Coco's graphic novel has caught the silliness and loneliness of young girls who, with little talent but loads of chutzpah can be happy with a life they, not adults, frame for themselves.

Thus they become the best for themselves.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Teen sex at its best!, 30 November 2014

"We have to say the things we feel. We can't keep it inside." Gabriel (Fabio Audi)

The Way He looks is set in Sao Paulo but could be in San Diego for the universal experiences of teens, especially soon-to-be gays. Fabio and Leonardo have a fine friendship, which they share with Giovana (Tess Amorim), who was Leo's friend first (an echo of Truffaut).

The film takes a delicate subject, the emerging homosexuality of the two males, juxtaposes it against Gio's love for Leo, and slowly evolves to a sweet reconciliation of desires and loves. I'll guess Latino filmmakers are more adept at these delicate balances, or at least it seems, as American films attack teen romance with bows and arrows and bullies bigger that NFL half backs.

Although Leo experiences the vagaries of being blind, an obvious metaphor for his emerging sexual orientation, the film doesn't cash in on the schoolyard clichés, bullies and all. Even the explicit but lovely shower scene, in which Gabriel is able to survey Leo's body, carries little threat of repercussions.

His home experience is benign except for overly protective parents and the classroom experience a minor irritation, no Blackboard Jungle that.

In other words, life is hectic for these kids in an almost ideal world, where violence is minor and love can find a home. This way, Leo can like the way Gabriel looks and not suffer for it.

11 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
Anyone who's suffered loss knows this horror., 28 November 2014

"You can't get rid of the Babadook." Samuel (Noah Wiseman)

The monsters they do live inside us, except, of course, when they also inhabit our humble homes, which is the stuff of horror films for over a hundred years. In that well-prescribed genre rests Jennifer Kent's disturbing The Babadook, one of the best psycho-horror films in recent years.

Almost jumping off a children's terrorizing pop-up book, Mister Babadook, the titular monster and typical kids' bogeyman, is first of all an obvious metaphor for the demon that dogs a mom, Amelia ( the fine Essie Davis), after losing her husband in a car accident as she is going to give birth to her 6 year-old son, Samuel. As they try to deal with the loss and its resentments, mom and son can't shake the terror of losing dad and husband, nor can the guilt-ridden Samuel let go of the feeling that Babadook is in their lives for the long haul: "You can bring me the boy," says Babadook, in a statement redolent of revenge and resentment.

Actually seeing the monster as it invades their house is rare, as it should be, given the suspenseful emphasis on the son's growing obsession with the ghoul's presence and Mom's increasing mania. In other words, this film works as a psychological study almost better than a horror story.

In some ways it reminds me of The Innocents, and in other ways it is notably a successful rendition of the modern female fighting elements that used to be reserved for the flawed male (think of The Shining as a shining example of the male-dominated horror flick).

First-time Australian director Kent's relaxed depiction of the possession until the effective climax and denouement goes a long way to let the audience consider the psychological ramifications of profound loss. Rarely does she gives us the standard clichés like false alarms and banging doors; rather she lets the horror emanate from the seemingly possessed Samuel and mom's emerging dementia.

"Don't let it in." Samuel

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
It has everything., 20 November 2014

"I have a slight problem with the whole celestial-dictator premise." Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne)

The Theory of Everything has everything a Hollywood melodrama requires: attractive people fighting big odds and loving happily ever after. Except that this is the story of the rock star of cosmologists, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), stricken in his twenties with motor neuron disease, related to ALS and Lou Gehrig, and predicted to claim his life within 3 years.

Only it doesn't, and this heroic, brilliant professor spends his life thinking and writing, most notably his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time. Because this screenplay is an adaptation of his wife, Jane's (Felicity Jones) memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the film is largely about their romance, which is nicely done, and their three children (a bit of a drag), and a brief episode or two of his actually lecturing about his theories of black holes, time, and the super question about the existence of God, whom Stephen makes a part of his argument..

But if it has to be an emphasis on the challenges of their marriage and divorce, writer/director James Marsh has done well keeping the maudlin at bay and showing a sincere love between the principals. Eddie Redmayne should be nominated for an Oscar—he gets all the Hawking tics down remarkably well, going beyond Daniel Day-Lewis's virtuoso performance in My Left Foot.

Add to all this-- good movie-making: D.P. Benoit Delhomme drapes the frame in soothing rich color, enhancing my exalted notion of all things British. The Theory of Everything is a classic romantic biopic, satisfying like shepherds' pie on a cold winter's day.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Impressive in many ways., 19 November 2014

"The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Abe Lincoln

If writer-director A. J. Edwards wanted to show in his biopic, The Better Angels, the influence of angelic women on young Abe Lincoln, he succeeded. This minimalist, dialogue-spare depiction of Lincoln's early life in the woods of Indiana is rife with beautiful shots of trees and sunlight, not to mention a pristine cabin, but mostly it is filled with the love and direction given by Nancy (Brit Marling) and Sarah Lincoln (Diane Kruger).

Not much to do out there in the frontier but cut wood and think about ways to be a better human being. While the women chat with Abe about life, Tom Lincoln (Jason Clarke), his dad, contributes a considerable amount to Abe's tough mindedness, largely by testing Abe's patience with dad's harsh discipline.

While this less-than-epic activity occurs, it is encased in gorgeous photography, black and white crisp, with light streaming through tall trees, frequently at low angle to emphasize the child's point of view. You could almost say it's a copy of Terrence Malick's work, and you'd be right because the ethereal cinematography of that master (Tree of Life, Badlands, for example) no doubt influenced Edwards, whose film is produced by Malick and with whom he has worked.

On the other hand, the poetic images could be off putting for those who accuse Malick of being pretentious or just interested in painting rather than telling a story. I go where a director wants to take me—in this case, to a lyrical feeling about the early life of an immortalized leader.

Although The Better Angels is mostly impressionism, symbolic shots couched in terse language, be it by actors or voice-over, the picture of young Abe up to his rural schooling seems spot on for the intense, brilliant, iconic president we have come to know. I'm impressed.

"All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother" Abe Lincoln

Whiplash (2014)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
One of the best films of the year., 16 November 2014

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job." Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)

Fletcher and his uncompromising, ninja teaching methods do not include praise for pupils in Whiplash, or in any Marine squad facing a stolid drill instructor. This intense drama about a young drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), who attends a Julliard-like music school, has the advantage of hyperbole—an abusive coach who coaxes performance beyond expectations by verbally and physically pushing his studio band to reach the best they can do.

Because Teller was already a drummer before he took this part, the many shots of him drumming at a furious pace as he pursues Buddy Rich's ghost have a real feel, the bloody hands remotely suggesting a Christ-like devotion to perfection. The sacrifices demanded by Fletcher rise above the trite into a moving commentary on the challenges necessary to become great, not just in music but in life itself.

When the driven Andrew must cut loose his girlfriend because he sees she'll distract him from his goal of becoming the best drummer, it is apparent that bloody hands and wounded hearts will be the constant companions in the pursuit of greatness.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle and DP Charone Meir cut frequently to Andrew's blazing, bloody drummer hands to show the painful grandeur of excellence. We are only too aware that few humans are capable of such extreme passion.

The core of Whiplash is the conflict between gentle nurturing (a popular learning philosophy over the last few decades) and the coaching that brooks no weakness, never admits greatness, and sometimes produces a Charlie Parker. Or Max Roach. Or Buddy Rich the apparent inspiration of Andrew's ambition. The film is dominated by Fletcher's take-no-prisoners method whereby he pushes to get performances beyond expectations.

Both Simmons as the musical DI and Teller as the ambitious young musician should get Oscar nominations. Whiplash is just that: a head-turning experience.

"I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody's idea of success." Andrew

7 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Documentary gold., 13 November 2014

"We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind." Ed Snowden

Welcome to a real-time documentary that doesn't have a political agenda yet covers the most controversial and important whistle blowing in this century. Edward Snowden disclosed extensive information mining of US citizens by NSA and other agencies. Laura Poitras's thrilling but sometimes slow documentary takes us to Hong Kong to witness Snowden's alarming the world about the US spying on its citizens and world leaders among others.

Citizenfour (the handle Snowden used when communicating) keeps the audience front row and center as Snowden makes contact with director Laura Poitras to arrange footage of his process, and most importantly with reporter Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian to write about this game-changing event. Neither is hesitant to take on the story, possibly because of its incendiary nature and the honesty of the whistleblower.

This story is like a great Jason Bourne spy story (without the glamour and tensions) pitting former intelligence operative Snowden against the great American political and media machines. In the outside world, German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed shock that the US was monitoring her cell phone conversations.

Poitras smartly includes President Obama condemning Snowden as unpatriotic and a danger to the American people, an argument going on even as you read this review. Curiously, the documentary makes no argument and goes easy on the suspense, making significant historical cinema but not gripping drama.

The so far unanswerable question is whether he's a hero or a traitor. The Snowden exposed to the ever present harsh light of camera and mics seems completely at peace with himself as he considers the rough life he has elected as a whistleblower. Indeed we are fortunate to see him at the most stressful point in his life being cool and level-headed. While Poitras makes sure we get to know him intimately, she never loses sight of the fact that this doc is about government spying.

Citizenfour is a fascinating, risky, and brave film for everyone who is interested in the challenges of truth telling.

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