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Catch Me If You Can is Top-Notch Spielberg: Breezy, Delightful, and Melancholy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 2, 2015 | Add Comments

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Breezy and light but undercut with a stinging melancholy, Catch Me If You Can (2002; available on iTunes) finds Steven Spielberg straddling between drama and comedy, and creating a classy, perfectly constructed based-on-a-true-story 60′s caper. It’s seems like an odd choice for Spielberg to direct at this point in his career; it is neither an “Important” historical drama that reasserts his brilliance nor a fantastical adventure that again proves his powers as an entertainer. Doesn’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a more delightful, thoughtfully made late-career film from one of our great working directors.

Adapted from the eponymous non-fiction memoir by the film’s subject, Frank Abegnale Jr., the film begins with a clever game-show scene that gives us our first glimpse of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a few scenes from 1969, which give us a look ahead, the film skips back to 1963. Frank is a teenager living happily with his loving parents Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) until money problems threaten their middle-class bliss. The family moves out of their spacious home and into a smaller apartment, and then Paula cheats on her husband. The two divorce and Frank, moody, confused, and horrified, runs away from home.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)There are two early scenes in the film that hint at where Frank’s life is heading. In the first, his father gives him a cheque book as a birthday gift and tells him he can have anything he wants. Later, Frank is bullied at his new school. Then he walks into French class and convinces everyone he’s a substitute teacher, until his parents are notified. Yet these are mere glimpses of what Frank is capable of. After running away from home, he pretends to be an airplane pilot and gets a job at Pan-Am. Then he forges cheques listing the airline company’s name, and gets away with stealing millions of dollars. And then he gets a job as a doctor, saying he went to medical school. And then he gets a job as a lawyer saying he went to law school. The entire film has this absurd, but absurdly entertaining, “And then he did this” flow, partly thanks to the relaxed and entirely cohesive script by Jeff Nathanson. Within the space of a half-hour of screen time, we see him go from innocent, contented boy to a bittered son of separated parents to man of luxury, riches, and happiness. But is he really happy? Frank asks out a stewardess, spends a night with a prostitute, and occasionally meets up with his dad, but he never settles anywhere or with anyone. Things won’t stay like this forever, of course, and it’s not long before a humorless FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is on Frank’s trail.

Spielberg is on peak form here, swiftly switching gears from ridiculous rich-kid comedy to equally ridiculous cat-and-mouse caper comedy. He clearly relishes the chance to do a 60′s period film and the attention to detail (the Aston Martin Frank cruises around in, the Pan-Am clothing, the spacious suburban houses) is just right. So are all of the actors, especially DiCaprio. As Frank, he’s slick and crafty, a skilled smooth talker. But DiCaprio infuses the role with undertones of guilt, sorrow, and loneliness that make us feel sympathy with him to the end. Hanks has surprisingly little screen time, but makes the most of it by taking the role of goofy government agent and going a little deeper. Walken is also great as the well-meaning but delusional father, and Amy Adams has a fine supporting part as an innocent love interest.

There’s top-notch work all around here, from cinematographer Januz Kaminski, who deftly switches from sunny and optimistic to cool and dark, from John Williams and his suspense-bulding score, and from legendary opening-credits designer Saul Bass, who has a great title sequence here.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Still, it’s Spielberg’s balancing of tones that keeps the whole thing marvelously afloat. There are moments of sorrow and depression and we do get our heartstrings sufficiently pulled. But Spielberg also knows not to dwell on the darker aspects of the story for too long. Instead, he keeps the movie flying smoothly and steadily, like one of the Pan-Am planes Frank pilots. Catch Me If You Can may appear to be a “minor” work by a great director, yet it entertains us (without dinosaurs!), moves us (without Nazis!), and holds us in utter fascination for it’s entire two-and-a-half hour length, not unlike Frank held bankers, pilots, doctors, and the government in awe.

 

A Safe, Not Totally Awesome Oscars Telecast Awoken by Surprise Wins (Flack’s Report)

Posted on | February 24, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015

Despite plenty of surprise Oscar winners, Neil Patrick Harris’ 87th Annual Academy Awards show often felt safe, sometimes sedate, and comfortable with being fine but forgettable. Sure, there were the inevitable offensive jokes (“American Sniper with Bradley Cooper. The most prolific sniper in history, with over 160 confirmed kills. Or, as Harvey Weinstein calls it, a slow morning.”) But for most of the show Harris settled for innocuous predictability.

That’s not, however, entirely a bad thing. The opening number, “Moving Pictures”, was an ode to the escapist and inspiring power of movies, with costumed extras, clips, and a cameo from Anna Kendrick. It was rather delightful and, after so much controversy, refreshingly uplifting. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of thing (host appears inserted in movie scenes and tells us how great movies are) performed at countless other Oscar shows. And though this year’s crop of nominees would’ve provided plenty of joke material, Harris opted to honor classic films we’ve seen countless times. Where were the Boyhood jokes? The pre-recorded video where Neil Patrick Harris grows up over twelve years? Where he marches along side MLK? Fights alongside Bradley Cooper? Luckily, a crotchety Jack Black interrupted Harris midway through with a hilarious song about Hollywood’s superhero problem.

On the whole, it was an enjoyable opening number. But almost immediately, it became apparent the show had major script problems. Around half of Harris’ jokes fell flat. The back-and-forth quipping between presenters was often awkward and stiff (Kendrick and Kevin Hart seemed to barely acknowledge each other). Worst of all was a prolonged briefcase gag that didn’t reveal it’s unfunny punchline until the last minutes of the show. Why did Harris’ “predictions” turn out to be a recap of the show’s big moments? My guess is the producers wanted to catch up viewers who tuned in at the end on everything that already happened (isn’t that what Twitter is for?).

Oscars 2015To the producers’ credit, there were some truly winning moments. Lady Gaga toned down her antics but wowed with her astonishing voice during a 50th anniversary medley of The Sound of the Music, and Julie Andrews came out to congratulate her. Otherterrific musical performances included Tim McGraw’s tearjerking rendition of Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and Adam Levine’s flawless falsetto on Begin Again‘s “Lost Stars”. (Jennifer Hudson’s sorta bland In Memoriam number and Tegan and Sara’s candy-colored “Everything Is Awesome” spectacle were less awesome). The night’s high point came, as I had expected, when John Legend and Common performed their Selma song “Glory”. With Legend’s impeccable voice, Common’s rhythmic rapping, a soulful chorus, and lyrics that mention Ferguson, it was a poignant and undeniably affecting highpoint.

Neil Patrick Harris’ highpoint, meanwhile, came around halfway through the show. In a live video clip, Harris was shown backstage, struggling with a bathrobe caught in the door. Reluctantly, he walked away, dropping the bathrobe and clad only in underwear. Within seconds, clued-in cinephiles got the reference: Michael Keaton’s near-naked Times Square walk in Birdman. It was totally hilarious, and it only got better when Harris pushed the face of an anxious reporter away and then told a drumming Miles Teller “Not my tempo”. This type of movie in-joke comedy was sorely missing from much of the rest of the broadcast, but triumphed here.

As for the actual awards, I didn’t totally triumph with my predictions; I correctly forecasted 15 out of 24 categories. For the first ten or so, I guessed every one right (surprisingly, I did best in the technical categories and even correctly guessed the Best Documentary Short category). Though many of the big categories turned out different than I’d expected, in many ways, I wasn’t surprised. I predicted voters would award Original Screenplay to Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but they instead opted for Birdman (great dialogue, memorable characters). And I was wrong in thinking Whiplash‘s examinations of ambition and perfection would garner it the Adapted Screenplay prize; the award went to the tightly structured The Imitation Game. J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore, respectively, all seemed to have won the Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Actress awards before the show began, and they all collected their trophies. Best Actor, meanwhile, didn’t go to Birdman‘s Michael Keaton (I thought that would be a sentimental career-achievement sign of respect) but to The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne, who physically transformed himself for the role of ALS-suffering scientist Stephen Hawking.

Oscars 2015And then there were the two biggies: Best Director and Best Picture. I predicted Boyhood would win both, or perhaps Birdman would nab one of the two. Wrong. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling dramedy walked away with both, again proving the Academy’s love for showbusiness stories (Shakespeare in Love, ChicagoThe Artist, Argo etc.). As Oscar writer Mark Harris mentioned in an article, the Academy undoubtedly connected to the film’s story of a faded blockbuster star trying to prove his artistic integrity with a daring new project Hey, we can do more than superheroes, was the message conveyed by the win.

Boyhood‘s story (kid grows up) seems more universally relatable, since everyone was once a kid growing up and not everyone was once a very unstable movie star. But the Academy chose to go with a story personal to them. Boyhood may have been too slow, uneventful, artsy, maybe too good for the Oscars. Make no mistake, I thought Birdman was brilliant, but it just wasn’t Boyhood. No movie is, and that’s not only because of the filming-for-12-years thing. It’s the kind of film you feel genuinely lucky to have seen and truly grateful that someone thought to make it. Ultimately, Linklater’s movie walked home with a single Oscar (for Arquette). The one-time frontrunner lost a few key prizes and was left with as many prizes as…How to Train Your Dragon 2!? Birdman‘s final tally was a respectable four wins, tying with The Grand Budapest Hotel (which swept many technical categories) for the most. Whiplash also was next, with three wins; Boyhood and the other four Best Picture nominees each won a single award.

Finally, I want to discuss up the Academy’s struggle with race, which has been a topic of discussion since Selma was largely shut out of the nominations. How did the show handle it? Much the way the largely white SNL did, during their 40th anniversary special: a few mildly awkward, pretty funny jokes and then quickly sidestep the issue.  ”Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest…I mean brightest” Harris joked during his opening line. Pretty daring first joke, sure, but that doesn’t solve any diversity issues among the nominees. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (herself an African-American woman) would’ve been wise to discuss the problem during her speech. She could’ve talked about how the problem exists not just in the Academy, but in the actors Hollywood casts. David Oyelowo wasn’t nominated and that was unfortunate, but not many other non-white actors were major contenders. That said, many Oscar winners chose to address important issues during their acceptance speeches. Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore talked about attempting suiccide at 16, then encouraged viewers to “stay weird”. During his Best Picture speech, Iñárritu asked for better treatment of Mexican immigrants in America. And Patricia Arquette called out unequal pay among men and women (Meryl Streep liked that).

Overall, this was a pretty average Oscar telecast. It wasn’t a straight-up disaster in the vein of Hathway/Franco or McFarlane. At the same time, it’ll be forgotten quicker than both those shows. Like Ellen DeGenres, Harris appealed to all demographics and pleased everyone…but ended up wowing nobody. And did I mention Boyhood should’ve won? Anyway, this particularly insane awards season is over…which means it’s time to through out some 2016 predictions. Here are a few: The Hateful Eight. The Revenant. Steve Jobs. Joy. Miles Ahead. The End of the Tour. Spielberg’s latest. And…Episode VII?

PCFF 2015 Day 7: Shorts, Dog vs. Nazis, and Awards

Posted on | February 22, 2015 | Add Comments

The final day of the festival is finally here! That’s right, the festival has come to an end after many snowstorms and much perseverance. I began the final day with Finn which I had heard lots of good things about, prior to viewing the film. The movie follows the titular boy who discovers his family history, musical calling, and mysterious instructor. But everyone is not as they seem and the baffling past will come to be revealed by the end of this film. While it suffers from predictability, Finn is at first glance nothing but an average family drama. But as it continues on, the film becomes increasingly more and more interesting as the plot continues to unravel. Mels van der Hoeven stands out in an impressive cast as Finn whose boyish curiosity leads to conflict and…Watch the film, already!

Finn

Next up was the second Youth Filmmakers Showcase, this time the Multi-Regional edition. They ranged from zombie epics to magic gum to invisible girlfriends. While it may not have been the strongest collection of shorts the festival has showed, it was still fun to see what young filmmakers had to say. One highlight was GIFTS, a surprisingly violent murder-mystery that made you put the pieces together with little help from the filmmakers.

For the closing night screening, Belle & Sebastian was the perfect fit. I had never seen it before myself, so it was a pleasure to see something new. Sebastian, a young boy on the France/Switzerland border, meets Belle, the so-called “beast” who’s really a shaggy dog with large, cute eyes. But the story is more than cute; it’s moving, emotional, and memorable in all the right ways. Asides from some phenomenal performances from all the lead actors notably, like Finn, the young lead. The main standout, however, is the cinematography which is never better than the opening scene. As Sebastian is daringly lowered from a cliff, I clenched my seat in suspense. The breathtaking shots of the landscapes are fantastic, but it never gets better than the opening scene.
Belle and Sebastian

Of course, the highlight of the day had to be the awards. As predicted by both Flack and I, Song of the Sea took home the big prize that was Audience Choice. Thanks to the audience at the final screening, Belle & Sebastian scored the second spot while Finn clocked in at third. Winda thoroughly entertaining short, took home the award for best short and Scrap Wood War was the Jury Choice.

All in all, it was a great festival that will surely rank highly in the pantheon of past fests. From great…Wait a second, the Oscars are on! We’ll see you next year, at the movies.

Flack’s Last-Minute Best Picture Oscar Analysis

Posted on | February 22, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015If you’ve read anything about the Oscars, you’ve heard about the neck-in-neck Best Picture race between Boyhood and Birdman, one of the closest in years. Since its summer release, Richard Linklater’s 12-year coming of age drama Boyhood has been racking up critics raves, which were followed by critics awards and then big wins from the Golden Globes and BAFTAS. Those two ceremonies, however, don’t have a lot of overlap in their voter-body with the Oscars. Meanwhile, the Producer’s Guild, Director’s Guild, and Screen Actor’s Guild share many of the same members with the Academy, and in theory are more helpful tell-tale signs. So when Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling backstage dramedy Birdman swept all three ceremonies, the tides began to turn.

For months, Boyhood seemed like the little movie that could go all the way from a small indie release to the Oscar podium. But Birdman, a more conventionally showy Oscar favorite, has gained enough traction to make a win seem unsurprising. Besides, it’s a movie commenting on movies, which the Academy clearly loves (think The Artist and Argo).

So…why am I predicting Boyhood for the big win? The film has a timely yet timeless quality that feels perfect for a Best Picture winner; it also encapsulates 12 years of culture into one moving film. And, in a year that has seen the Academy nominate a large number of independent films, it seems like the right time for an indie champion. I’m also predicting Richard Linklater for Best Director. Sure, Iñárritu’s direction is more in-your-face dazzling (one-take camerawork, drum soundtrack, breathless dialogue) but Linklater’s long-term hard-work will likely be rewarded. All that said, I’m anything but sure about my picks. Birdman certainly could take Best Picture, or Iñárritu could win Director and split the big two with Boyhood (assuming it wins Best Picture).

Personally, I’m rooting for (and predicting) Boyhood for both awards…and, in such a close race, perhaps we should listen to our hearts.

Flick’s 2015 Oscar Speech

Posted on | February 22, 2015 | Add Comments

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Everything from predictions to analysis of the hosts is here and it’s all ready for you to devour just before Oscar night:

The Oscars have always been a momentous occasion, one which for the past six years we’ve had a great time celebrating with you. This years marks the 87th time little gold men have been given out to the best of the year’s films. Debates over the relevancy of the show have long been discussed and while the announcement a few years ago that Academy voters may be mostly white, male, and older has certainly sparked much debate, that doesn’t mean that bloggers, fashonitas, critics, and I will cease endless analysis around the big night. What it does mean is that the winners and losers of February 22nd will be taken with a grain of salt; we know that this isn’t the collective opinion of 20-something black women, 70-something asians, and 40-something hispanics. The fact that it’s mostly 63 year old white men (yes, that is the average voter) might help to explain some of the nominees.

Take for instance, the Best Actor category. The past year had a lot of fantastic performances, many of which are up for the award. Michael Keaton had quite the comeback, Eddie Remayne showed he has some serious acting chops, and Bennedict Cummberbatch weilded his brainy Britishness to charming effect. Throw in Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell, whose films I didn’t see, and you have all five nominees. Now, the three performances I did see were great, but which actor had the most memorable turn of the year?

My vote goes to David Oyelowo whose performance as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma was flawless, yet didn’t warrant a nomination. He perfectly conveyed the worn-out, yet unwavering drive behind the brilliant, yet flawed King. One of the greatest things about his performance was his ability to approach the man as a man, not a historical icon but a real person dealing with complicated dilemmas. His scenes with Carmen Ejogo as his wife were some of the most powerful moments on screen all year. And yet the Academy failed to recognize him, as well as the film’s director, Ava DuVernay.

Asides from the social squabbles, there is of course the night’s entertianment. Neil Patrick Harris is this year’s host and while he did succesfully host the Tonys four times and the Emmys twice, competing with last years show hosted by Ellen DeGeneres will prove difficult. DeGeneres scored the most views since 2000, averaging 43.7 million viewers tuning in. Her selfie with Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, and Julia Roberts (just to name a few) became the most retweeted Twitter photo ever. Throw in some pizza delivery and musical numbers, as well and you’ve got a show. It seemed as though the Oscars had finally overcome their identity crisis.

In this digital age, an awards show that has run anywhere from two to nearly four and half hours can begin to feel a bit tedious, at least to the 20 year olds with their hipster fingers ready to cement their thoughts permanently into social media. The show’s producers have tried it all. They tried two hosts instead of one, to add some excitement into the mix but of course that ended with an akward James Franco accompanied by an overexcited Anne Hathaway. After that, they tried to go back to their roots with the classic Billy Crystal, only to cater to younger and raunchier audiences the next year with Seth Macfarlane. Neither of those two hosts really worked because they were either too dated and not in touch with the audience (Crystal) or they totally ignored what the Oscars were about and decided to turn it into more of a crude roast (Macfarlane). What the Oscars really need is a host that can cater to many demographics: the movie buffs, those just there to watch the celebrities, the people who have watched all 87 Oscar ceremonies, and those just there to post something on Twitter. DeGeneres and Patrick Harris seem to fit into the perfect categrory of contemporary comedians, while still weilding the classy old-school quality. They may not be your absolute favorite host, but they succeed in appealing a little bit to a lot of people.

All of this talk about the show itself can sometimes can get in the way of what it’s really all about: no, not the fashion, the films. So, let’s take a look at the nominees. The two easiest of the major categories to predict are undoubetdly the Supporting Actor and Actress awards. J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette, respectively, were both phenomenal and have already won the SAG and Golden Globe awards. I’m putting my money for Michael Keaton in the Best Actor category, although Eddie Remayne is so hot on his heels that it could go either way. For Best Actress, Julianne Moore is a lock mostly because she’s never won. Director will go out to the amazing Richard Linklater and Best Picture?

If Boyhood doesn’t win it’ll be quite a shock. A few bloggers have said that Birdman will steal it and while I agree it’s certainly the runner up, I don’t think even the Academy could ignore the sheer scope and originality of Boyhood. It’s a film both seismic in ambition, while genuine in it’s emotion. In a year with so many great films, this was the one that will be remembered for years to come. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what the Best Picture category is supposed to decide? Not which film is your favorite (Boyhood is my favorite), or the one you could watch the most (I can’t wait to watch it for the third time), but the one that represents the year on a whole. If you look back at the past 87 years of cinema, which of the eight nominees deserves to enter into the pantheon of all-time  greats alongside The Sound of Music, Casablanca, Gandhi, Gone with the Wind, Annie Hall, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, and more? I say Boyhood and I sure hope the Academy does too.

Flack’s 2015 Oscar Speech

Posted on | February 22, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015Confused by all the excitement and outrage surrounding this year’s Oscars? Do your homework before the show today, and read my Oscar essay about SelmaAmerican SniperBoyhood, and more. Predictions are included at the end. Here’s the speech/essay:

The awards season hoopla that surrounds the Oscars repeats itself each and every year and, to some extent, with little difference. Months of movie-geek forecasting, last-minute controversy, and other, lesser awards shows lead up to the big night, the Super Bowl of Hollywood, the Oscars. Actually, the show shares a few traits with that football spectacle, though it takes place not at a crowded fields and a packed arena but a Hollywood auditorium and at a podium. Yet like the Super Bowl, the Oscars are the outcome of tireless hype, careful marketing, and a whole lot of preparation; likewise, they inspire obsessively geeky debating, cheers of joy, some unsullied loser faces, and post-event speculation. And then, after a couple of weeks, the dust cloud of glitz and glamour fades away. Remaining hints of Oscar excitement are buried in awards blogs where anxious film-nerds are already predicting next year’s winners. By the time fall comes around, the film world is already revving its engine up again, preparing for another tough battle for gold.

This year’s “battle for gold” has been a little different, and I’m not just saying that to get your attention. Larger debates about race and politics have been at play, lending the event an unexpected touch of “importance”. It’s common for a few films to have their awards standings lightly, slightly tarnished by historical inaccuracy or a celebrity dispute or something else no one could’ve expected. But this year, two films, Selma and American Sniper, didn’t just have to politely sidestep a minor dispute; they had to face industry-wide discord head-on.

Selma, once considered a possible front-runner, was only nominated for two awards: Best Picture and Best Song. Why? The Selma filmmakers opted only to send screeners to the Academy, not other award-show voters, which meant the film was largely shut out of vital pre-Oscar award-show signifiers. There was also an inordinate amount of press lathered on the LBJ-Civil Rights kerfuffle, which involved historians chastizing the film for it’s less-than-squeaky-clean depiction of our 36th President . Both those factors certainly had something to do with the less-than-expected show of love for the film. But it’s hard not to look at the Academy-voting demographic (94% white, 76% male, average age of 63) and think some outmoded views on gender and race may have gotten in the way of nominations for lead actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay (who would’ve been the first black woman to get a Best Director nomination).

Clint Eastwood’s Iraq-war thriller American Sniper, another late entry into the race, got six nominations (Best Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Editing and Mixing). How did Sniper, which received a fair share of tepid reviews, manage to get so much attention, while Selma, easily one of the best-reviewed films of the year, got sidelined? For one thing, critics don’t vote for Oscars. That demographic I previously mentioned (white, male, and old) may be the type of group that could get behind a film critic David Edelstein called a “Republican platform movie”, despite criticisms of glorified combat sequences and disparaging depictions of the Iraqi people. The Academy also loves a populist favorite and, perhaps perplexingly, Sniper may fill that spot: despite an R rating, the film has made 250 million dollars. Selma, meanwhile, has made 31 million, a third of what Sniper made in it’s first weekend.

So what do all these statistics mean? Are Oscar voters really racists who just love a good, old-fashioned war movie? No (actually, most of them are probably very nice people). But things need to change. I haven’t seen Sniper, but I did love Selma, a terrific film, made by a thoughtful director and starring one incredible actor. Aside from diversity, it was a great movie, and I’m not alone in wishing it had gotten more nominations. So, how will things change? On the bright side, this year’s controversy (which sparked a hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite) may influence voters to diversify future nominees. Yet the problem really lies in the heart of Hollywood. Many reporters have pointed out that all twenty acting nominees this year are white. A disheartening statistic, sure, but even if, say, David Oyelowo had gotten nominated there would still be more white nominees than those of other ethnicities because Hollywood is a largely white industry.

Now let’s look up on the upside. Take a good, hard look at the nominees for Best Picture. Yes, Oscar-baiting Weinstein-approved period pieces The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are on the list. But you’ll also notice the Oscars really love independent movies, the kind that might not have gotten nominated twenty years ago. We can partly thank the new Best Picture rules. In 2010, ten, not five, films were allowed nominations and in 2012, the limit changed again: five to ten is the magic number(s?). I for one, like those rules (though ten would make more sense). But while many predicted the change would allow more big-budget crowd-pleasers to sneak in, the opposite has happened. At the 2010 show, a Hollywood epic (Avatar) lost to a small-scale war-drama (The Hurt Locker). While the Academy next chose a period-piece (The King’s Speech) over a zeitgeist-capturing tech-tale (The Social Network), they’ve since given the big prize to a silent French comedy (The Artist), a quirky thriller (Argo), and a slavery epic (12 Years a Slave), while nominating a diverse range of films (The Tree of Life, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Her, to name the most esoteric).

This year continues that trend, with four of the eight Best Picture nominees being either independent or artsy or both. Those four films are Wes Anderson’s decades-spanning comic-caper The Grand Budapest Hotel, 30-year old Damien Chazelle’s drumming-drama Whiplash, Alejandro Iñáritu’s sorta-one-take showbiz dramedy Birdman, and Richard Linklater’s 12-year coming-of-age epic Boyhood. While acknowledging and bemoaning the Oscar’s lack of diversity, the Academy deserves at least a little credit for recognizing films both big and small. Some writers have complained that 2014 was a weaker-than-usual year for movies, but I was exhilarated, moved, surprised, and wowed by many films, particularly Whiplash, Selma, Birdman, The Wind Rises, We Are the Best!, Ida, Life Itself, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and two big-budget surprises, The LEGO Movie and Edge of Tomorrow. My favorite, however, is Boyhood, a film that evoked feelings of poignancy, honesty, beauty, and the thrill of cinema in ways I’ve never experienced at another movie. For my money, it’s going to walk away with Best Picture (though look, up in the sky and watch out for Birdman) and the 12-years-in-the-making win will be well-deserved.

Predictions

Best Picture:
Boyhood

Best Director:
Richard Linklater

Best Actor:
Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Best Actress:
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Supporting Actor:
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress:
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Whiplash

Best Original Screenplay:
Birdman

Best Animated Feature:
How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Foreign Language Film:
Ida

Best Documentary Feature:
Citizenfour

PCFF 2015 Day 6: Superb Shorts and Journeys to School

Posted on | February 21, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF 2015 Day 3After week-day library screenings of past-festival favorites, the PCFF returned to Thayer Street for the first part of it’s weekend finale. Though there weren’t films at the Avon or Metcalf venues, Wheeler’s Gilder Center screened five features and one shorts collection. The Brown Granoff Center, meanwhile, had it’s PCFF debut, showing festival films for the first time.

I started my day at Wheeler, with the PCFF-collected Elementary School-Vol. 2 shorts group. Presenting audiences with the kind of big-screen experiences (foreign films, documentaries etc.) they don’t normally get to see is one of the festival’s strengths, and short films certainly make for unique viewing. Seeing a collection of short films is always a thrill because, unlike with features, you never know exactly what you’ll find. A mix of mystery, anticipation, excitement, and possibility awaits. So does the inevitable fact that you’re bound to love some of the shorts, but not all of them. In this group, Only Gilt could’ve used a more satisfying ending. I’ve Just Had a Dream suffered from a repetitive structure and a slightly stereotypical story. Overall, though, it was a diverse and captivating selection. Chikara- The Sumo Wrestler’s Son is an almost transporting documentary that gives us a look into the gritty, grimy world of kids sumo wrestling. It’s observant and informative, even a little heartbreaking, and an absorbing look at a culture vastly different than ours. The animated Wind was lighter and funnier, but no less of an achievement. The four-minute film is a wonderfully crafted, clever, and darkly comic delight. Speaking of delights, The Revenge of Scooter was a charming piece of homemade sci-fi, with cardboard effects and tongue-in-cheek dialogue to match.

PCFF 2015 Day 3Following a hearty banh-mi sandwich from the Lotus Pepper food truck, I next visited the Granoff for the documentary On the Way to School. Directed by Pascal Plisson, the film follows four groups of children from Kenya, Patagonia, Morocco and India, as they make their perilous, tiresome, and lengthy trips to school. The film unquestionably achieves it’s central goal; I left the film with a newfound appreciation for my life and my daily journey to school (a five-minute car ride). But the doc sometimes feels more educational (and episodically structured) than one would like, while a little long in parts.

PCFF 2015 Day 3Though I can (and have) managed seeing five festival films in a day, I ended fairly early with the Party Mix shorts, curated by the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Apart from two weak shorts, it was a top-notch compilation. Interestingly, a theme emerged from the group: fantastical fables that mixed bed-time story enchantment with either wit or animated wonder. The Centipede and the Toad, The Princess, the Prince and the Greed-Eyed Dragon, and Tome of the Unknown all fit this description. Overall standouts included Portlandia: Rat’s Book, from the creators of the eponymous hipster-satire show, the brief but hilarious Carpark, and Rabbit and Deer, which used different animation techniques to alter perceptions of what an animated short can do. Oscar-nominated The Dam Keeper, with it’s sludgy pastel colors and bullying allegory story, was certainly the most poignant. 

And, unfortunately, tommorrow the fest will come to a poignant end. But that end is not yet here! Check back in a day or two for our final festival report.

PCFF 2015 Day 5: Appalachian Music, Composting, and Our Film’s Premiere

Posted on | February 16, 2015 | Add Comments

The festival kicked into gear today, making a swift recovery after the slight dampening of spirit thanks to the storm. Starting off the day was Okee Dokee Brothers Through the Woods: An Appalachian Adventure, a delightfully joyous romp across the 2,180 mile long trail. The two musicians/hikers are Joe and Justin, who aren’t actually brothers but instead close friends. They plan to travel the entire trail and, while doing so, immerse themselves in the history and music of the mountains. The film balances a sense of lighthearted fun along with the rich history of “mountain music”. They play songs with the people they meet along the way, intermixed with music video-esque shots of the band fooling around. With a less skilled filmmaker behind the scene, the film might have easily slipped into an overly goofy spoof. In the hands of director Jed Anderson, it’s a pleasurable romp for nature lovers and music fans alike. Two local musicians jammed with the kids in the audience to create a song similar to the one sung in the film.

The Second Volume of the Middle/High School Edition of Your Shorts are Showin’ featured six shorts. The two highlights were Monocular Man and Zomposting. Both films balance comedy with drama. Zomposting is a hilarious how-to on composting told in a joyously fun way. The subtitles for the zombie’s dialogue add the perfect tongue-in-cheek touch and it’s all tied together with sharp editing and a memorable voiceover.

Monocular Man: My Eye and Saturn V tells the story of a boy who loses his eye after a firecracker-attached-to-a-rocket doesn’t go so well. The film is done in an incredibly unique way; neon drawings are sketched from the ground up to illustrate the entire story. We can see animator Ellen Stedfeld’s hand as she sketches drawing after drawing. The voiceover adds a witty touch and the script is told from the point of view of the boy. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s eye-opening. After the films, Mike Bell and Rich Pederson of Zomposting and R. Jim Stahl and Ellen Stedfeld of Monocular Man stepped on stage to talk about the process behind their shorts. (The two other standouts were Be the Tortoise, an inventive take on the classic Tortoise and the Hare lesson, and In The Coat’s Pocket which at first feels like an adventure but ends up being a thoughtful allegory on domestic violence.

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Wrapping up the day Flack and I premiered our own film, Amelia as part of the Regional edition of the Youth Filmmaker Show. It was great to see an audience react to our short and I also loved seeing other young filmmakers’ works. From Spanish film parodies to living sushi, jewelry robbers to philosophizing on the cultural status of fashion, there was a wide range of films on display. Fielding insightful questions during the panel after the film was also lots of fun. After working on the project for months, it was incredibly satisfying to share the story behind the film with the audience.

We look forward to the second weekend of films, but in the meantime you can watch past favorites from the festival at local libraries. I personally can’t wait for Finn and Eskil and Trinidad next weekend, both of which I haven’t seen but have heard great things about. In the meantime rest your bleary eyes up for more movie watching.

PCFF 2015 Day 4: Altered Dimensions, Superpowers, and Singing (in the rain)

Posted on | February 15, 2015 | Add Comments

Patema

Frigid temperatures, heavy accumulation, and a parking ban didn’t stop die-hard festival fans from finding alternative means of transportation (i.e. by foot and bus). It was pretty thrilling to see Providence cinephiles show what they’re made of by braving the harsh weather. Asides from the stormy excitement, the festival managed to continue on minus a few viewers and the RISD Auditorium.

I began the day with the sci-fi flick Patema Inverted. “Woah” is an understatement. Patema, a lively young girl, finds herself in the Danger Zone where gravity is inverted and she is turned upside down…Or is she? That’s only one of the many questions Patema finds herself struggling to answer. After meeting a young boy who has more in common than first meets the eye, Patema sets off on a journey to unite both her world and the next, defying all rules of gravity. The film may at times be a bit confused in terms of pacing and tone, but it’s the awe-some science of it’s world that shines through. Unlike some science fiction films, Patema Inverted takes time in sketching out the rules and limits of it’s world in an enthralling way.

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Next up was Singing in the Rain, my personal favorite of the day. For those who haven’t seen it, well, get yourself on over to the festival next Saturday to watch a seriously classic musical. The film effortlessly combines fun song and dance numbers with a subtle commentary on Hollywood show-biz. At the heart of it all is Gene Kelly whose priceless Don Lockwood is still as superb as ever. Kelly is also behind the camera, not only co-directing with Stanely Donen but also staging and directing the musical numbers. “Good Morning”, “Moses Supposes”, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, and of course the titular song are some of the most iconic musical numbers to grace the silver screen. Donald O’ Conor perfectly steals the show with his deft humor and incredible athleticism.

Following the film, Brian Jones showed off some of his stellar moves. Jones, a veteran tap-dancer, told his inspiring story beginning with childhood inspiration from his english teacher. He interspersed it with some great dancing and even brought some kids onstage to hilariously cute effect. Jones never paused to take a breath, making it obvious that he hasn’t been fooling around for the past forty-three years on stage.Antboy

Sneaking in for one more film, the Danish adventure Antboy spoofs the superhero genre to comedic effect. Young Pelle yearns of getting the girl and being the popular kid…Or at least being noticed at all. After being bit by a radioactive ant, he teams up with superhero geek Wilheim to become Antboy. The film gets by with enough tongue in cheek to keep it grounded in an original way. It’ll hit home with comics fans, kids, and adults. 

Tomorrow: the Okee Dokee brothers, more jury curated shorts and…Our own short Amelia debuting! We’ll see you there.

PCFF 2015 Day 3: A Summer Adventure, An Animated Marvel, and a Sibling Road-Trip

Posted on | February 14, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF 2015Thursday and Friday’s PCFF screenings certainly whet the appetites of movie-lovers ready for another great fest. But the feast really began on Saturday, with eight movies spread across two venues. In describing the fest, bigger” and “better” are the most appropriate words.

While there were five films screened at RISD’s Metcalf Auditorium, I spent the day at the Avon Cinema, seeing three movies. This is the fest’s first year at the Avon, and the theatre is a more than welcome addition to the list of venues. With a colorful marque, addictive popcorn, and five-hundred comfy seats, it’s a stylishly old-school cinema. (It opened in 1938).

My first film of the day was Scrap Wood War, Marien Rogaar’s Dutch boy’s adventure tale gone haywire. As the tale begins, Ziggy and Bas are inseparable friends, but that bond starts to splinter almost immediately. First, Ziggy attracts the attention of Bas’ classmate crush, to his friend’s glaring irritation. Then Bas befriends  a gang of intimidating older kids. At summer camp, kids compete to build the tallest scrap-wood towers possible. When Bas shuts out Ziggy and teams up with his new friends, things start to spiral out of control. A push-and-pull battle of menace, manipulation, and eventually violence ensues.

This is an intriguing premise, but not one you’ve never heard of (think the coming-of-age summer adventure of Stand by Me meshed with the kid-fighting of the first Hunger Games movie). Director Rogaar, however, elevates that elevator-pitch with her blend of suspense and adventure. She gives it the slow-burning dread of a horror movie, with the appropriate nighttime climax. Add in a fourth-wall breaking narrator, moody cinematography, and some surprisingly intense child performances, and you’re left with a nail-biting kid thriller. My only major gripe is with the film’s last 10 minutes. After the big confrontation scene, we’re given an unnecessary happy-ending pat-on-the-back.

PCFF 2015While Scrap Wood War was modestly attended, lines were out the door for the next film Song of the Sea. By the time the lights went down, nearly all of the Avon’s seats were filled by excited parents, ecstatic kids, and squealing babies. For some members of the audience, this was their first big-screen experience. The film is an Irish fable, based largely on the myths of the ocean, and centers on Ben, a pouty young boy with a silent six-year old sister, a depressed father, and a pesky grandmother. He lost his mother as a toddler, just before she gave birth to her daughter Saoirse. When Ben and Saorise runs away from home to get back their dog, they are unaware of the mythical journey that awaits them. It turns out Saoirse is half-human and half-Selkie, an endangered species of seals. Three kindly, singing men send brother and sister on a quest to save the Selkies. But Ben soon finds himself forced with his saving his sister.

Song of the Sea is directed by Tomm Moore, who made PCFF’s 2010 opening night film The Secret of Kells. While both draw from Irish mythology, Kells had the kind of sweepingly epic story you might find in a dusty old book of mythology. Song is a lovely, heartfelt, though often meandering film, with a story you could imagine your grandmother telling. It’s also a work of pure artistry, of hand-drawn animation from a new master of the form. Using gorgeous colors, lots of circular shapes, and a flat yet tactile sense of depth, Moore crafts one of the most ravishing animated films I’ve seen. Nearly every image offers new visual treats for the viewer. Unfortunately, the story isn’t as engaging, and the narrative is a sleepy, slightly confused jumble. Still, the animation alone makes it a must-see and, surrounded by hundreds of rapt viewers, I was swept up by the collective joy of moviegoing. What else could a film festival ask for?

PCFF 2015After hordes of teary-eyed viewers cleared out (the film has a three-hankie third-act), a new crowd came in for Side by Side. Director Arthur Landon’s debut feature is a sibling road-trip story with equal parts family tragedy, dry humor, and warm sentimentality. At the movie’s start, teen Lauren Buckley is living with her geeky gamer little brother Harvey and mentally-ill grandmother. Her parents died in a car crash years ago. People expect big things from Lauren: her athletic agent has big dreams for her running career, her grandmother assumes she will bind the family together, her brother believes she will make everything alright. But the morning granny is supposed to be taken to a nursing home and Lauren is going to sports-centered boarding school, Harvey runs away in search of the grandfather he never knew. Lauren follows, and an adventure begins. 

This sounds like high-stakes stuff and though there are slow-motion chase sequences, Side by Side works best when it seems to be working the least. The casual spontaneity developed during Harvey and Lauren’s one-on-one scenes work better than the more theatrical stretches. Yet while Landon sometimes fumbles (there are predictable scenarios, forced tear-jerking, and a one-note villain), the movie has an amiable, honest tone. Lauren and Harvey are characters you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with, and their journey is one you won’t mind taking.

Though I didn’t see it today, I’d previewed The Boy and the World (O Menino eo Mundo). At once a ravishing visual experience and a cautious commentary on modern society, it’s a meandering animated opus that stuns, provokes, and occasionally bores. The film’s hand-drawn animation is unlike any I’ve seen before: marvelous minimalism marked by boisterous color. After five minutes, one question became clear: is there more to the film than the gorgeous animation? The style, not the substance, is what makes the film so singularly dazzling, no question. But the plot, which begins as a generic “finding a father” quest, eventually dissolves into a surprisingly deep look at commercialism, materialism, and global warming (the meaning is up to interpretation). A pleasantly catchy pop-song that the film replays until it becomes irritating may also be a comment on culture. There are stretches of this largely wordless trip that don’t demand your attention as forcefully as others, that did make me a little squirmy in my seat. But while some may see the film as a pretentious art-school muddle, I think the ambition and artistry make this is a must-see, despite the flawed storytelling. The Boy and The World puts you in a trance that sometimes falters but, at it’s best, keeps your eyes darting around the screen in utter excitement.

Tomorrow: reviews of gravity-defying sci-fi anime Patema Inverted and classic musical Singin’ in the Rain.

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