RED ARMY (doc, 2014)

February 26, 2015

red army Greetings again from the darkness. You need not be a hockey fan to be familiar with the “Miracle on Ice” upset of the seasoned Russians by the upstart Americans at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Often referred to as a battle of cultures – “our way vs their way, capitalism vs communism” – most articles, TV shows, and movies have been presented from the American perspective.  It’s only now, in this informative and entertaining documentary from filmmaker Gabe Polsky, that we gain some insight into the Russian players and their way of life.

Mr. Polsky is the son of Russian immigrants, and grew up playing hockey in Chicago and later for Yale. His research into Russian hockey evolved into a documentary that blends sports, geopolitics, history, culture, and personal stories. He mixes in some fantastic archival film footage from the 1970’s and 80’s, but the heart of everything here flows from the interviews with Russian hockey legend Vyacheslav Fetisov, who is a vital and unique link to past and present. Much of this is set to the distinctive sounds of Russian folk music.

Fetisov is sometimes playful and sometimes snide in his remarks, but he basically narrates the history of Russian hockey – starting with Stalin’s founding of the organization, through the two key coaches: father figure Tarasov and the militant Tikhanov who followed. Stalin was convinced that Russian domination of global sports would clearly establish communism and the Russian culture as far superior to capitalism and the carefree ways of the west.  This led to the Red Army hockey camps being run by the military. The players were isolated for eleven months each year, training and playing in a manner that generated ultimate teamwork, but also quite unhappy young men.

We see the influence of Russian chess (Karpov) and the Bolshoi ballet for training methods, and we also see the ever-present KGB ensuring no “escapes”, or what we might know better as defections. We learn about the Russian Five (including Fetisov) who were so dominant that the team went two years without losing.  Gold medals in Sarajevo (1984) and Calgary (1988) occurred just prior to the 1991 dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the economic crisis of the region.

This is what opened the door for Russian hockey players to enter the NHL, though the transition was smoother for some than others. After a few years of adjusting, it was coach Scotty Bowman’s 1997 Detroit Red Wings that won the Stanley Cup with a contingency of Russian players (including Fetisov) who were given free reign to play their own game while on the ice. Their movements and intricate teamwork clashed mightily with the individualistic style of westerners … and that group of Russian players can be credited with helping the game to evolve to its current style.

Much of the insight comes from the faces of the men who are interviewed. Their stoicism and lack of emotion is a microcosm of the society in which they were raised. Their country was obliterated by war, and then led by a megalomaniac who wanted to rule the world. Human emotion and the rights of individuals mattered little, and we see that despite the years of hardship, these players remain (mostly) true and loyal to their country. This is a fascinating look at human nature and how the culture of one’s youth can directly impact the beliefs as an adult, so many years later.

watch the trailer:

 


THE LAZARUS EFFECT (2015)

February 26, 2015

lazarus Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of direct-to-video and movie streaming, it’s a bit surprising that one like this secures a theatrical release. But then it does have a solid cast and a producer who has a proven track record of profitable box office success with low budget horror. The other thing it has going for it is the time of year – there is not much being released right now that can draw the weekend teenage groups, the audience this is clearly aimed at.

Horror movies can be fun, and with a cast that includes Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover and Evan Peters, this one has the foundation to develop a following. However, what starts out like a new age “religion vs science” battle, ends up as a schlocky pseudo-intellectual gore fest. It teases us by mentioning the big questions: What happens when we die? Is it possible to bring back the dead? Should we even try? There are philosophical and ethical questions that are just as relevant as the religious ones.  Unfortunately, the teases offer no payoff and instead we are left with cheesy special effects and a demonic presence that is not so interesting.

When a movie disappoints like this, comparing it to better pictures seems unfair; however, there are elements of Flatliners (1990), Pet Sematary (1989), and of course James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). We even get an “IT’S ALIVE” reference, tongue-in-cheek though it is. The biggest difference is that all three of those films knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish, whereas this first feature film from director David Gelb is a mish-mash of genres and styles.

The basic premise is that lovers, and co-researchers at a Catholic university, Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde), along with their assistants Clay (Peters), Niko (Glover) and Eva (Sarah Bolger, one of the sisters from the great IN AMERICA from 2002), began by looking for a way to extend brain activity in comatose patients. Their work evolved into attempting to bring the dead back to life. It’s no surprise – and included in the trailer – that one of the group dies and the experimental serum is used to reanimate that person. You probably won’t be surprised at this … things don’t go well.

There are some interesting moments and elements – the recurring dream sequence plays out well, but most of the good stuff is quickly dropped in favor of jolts of shock and awe. Jump-scares abound and that will go over well with the Friday night teenagers, but few others will find much to like here. Producer Jason Blum has a real feel for this genre and has turned 50 cents into mega-millions with such movies as the Paranormal Activity franchise, The Purge, and Ouija among others. Mr. Blum has 21 projects in the works for 2015 alone, making him one of the most prolific producers working today. He will learn that it’s sometimes better to let dead dogs lie.

watch the trailer:

 


HUMAN CAPITAL (Il capitale umano, Italy, 2014)

February 26, 2015

Human Capital Greetings again from the darkness. The financial crisis-manslaughter-class warfare-thriller from novelist Stephen Amidon shifts from Connecticut (in the book) to just outside of Milan for director Paolo Virzi’s look at class and character.  A term used by insurance companies to calculate the value of a human life in settlement cases, “human capital” carries even more meaning in this twisted tale of greed and broken dreams.

After an opening sequence that shows an off-duty waiter getting knocked from his bicycle by a swerving SUV in the dark of night, the story is divided into chapters that provide the various perspectives of different characters affected by this hit-and-run. Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is a middle-class real estate business owner whose girlfriend (the too rarely seen Valeria Golino) is pregnant with twins, and his daughter Serena (Matilde Gioli) is dating a private school classmate Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli) who comes from the upper crest Bernaschi family that is living the dream thanks to the dad’s (Fabrizio Gifuni) hedge-fund success.

It’s easy to see how the lives of these two families become intertwined, and how a few other characters are also affected, but the real joy here is in getting to know each through their own actions. Dino desperately wants a taste of the finer things in life, and risks everything by fraudulently obtaining a bank loan in order to buy into Bernaschi’s hedge fund. His wife Roberta is a trusting and pure-hearted woman who accepts her place in society and warmly looks forward to being a new mom. Their daughter Serena proves to be the best judge of character and soon enough boots the spoiled kid Massimiliano to the curb, while connecting with the artistic and misunderstood Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), though even Serena’s moral compass shows its cracks.

Bernaschi is a smooth operator and the perfect face for a hedge fund so dependent on the financial collapse of its own country. His wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is a lost soul … enjoying the perks of a wealthy lifestyle, but still holding on to her artistic dreams of youth. Life as a trophy wife is evidently not so fulfilling for those with their own aspirations. Their son Massimiliano, as you might imagine, is unable to live up to the expectations of his father, and frequently handles his perceived lack of parental attention by over-boozing at every opportunity.

This film was Italy’s submission to the Academy in the Best Foreign Language category, but unfortunately did not make the final cut. It is rich in texture and remarkable in its ability to convey depth in so many characters. The basic story has some similarities to the film 21 Grams, in that we witness the many ways in which people handle crisis. In this case, the mystery of the initial sequence is left unsolved until near the end, but there are so many personal “fork in the road” moments, that solving the case of the cyclist death somehow doesn’t monopolize our thoughts.

Excellent acting throughout allows us to connect with each of the key characters, and especially worth noting are Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Matilde Gioli. Ms. Gioli is a newcomer with a bright future. She brings believability and strength to a teenager role that would more typically be over-the-top or one-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actress. Even more impressive is the performance from Ms. Bruni Tedeschi who perfectly captures the heartbreak of a woman living a life others can only dream about, while her own dreams are but shadows from the past.

With source material from a U.S. novelist, and subject matter involving the 1% and crisis of conscience, it’s not difficult to imagine an American remake, but this version is highly recommended for those who enjoy a multi-faceted dramatic thriller.

watch the trailer:

 


OSCARS recap (2015)

February 23, 2015

oscars6 Greetings again from the darkness. “Stay weird and stay different” is the main takeaway from this year’s Oscars presentation. Not only was that the heartfelt and emotional plea to kids made by Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore (The Imitation Game), but it also describes Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The Academy seems to suffer from a multiple personality disorder in trying to decide what to do with the ceremony. Is it a formal and dignified event to honor the nominees? Is it a celebration of the artistic and historic sides of cinema? Is it an opportunity to entertain the tens of millions of TV viewers who tune in each year? Not knowing the objective makes it very difficult to be successful, which leads to a too-long mish-mash of all three approaches further muddled by the 30-second political statements offered up by millionaires whose words probably carry less weight than they believe, but more than they should.

As a movie lover, what draws me to the telecast is the celebration of cinema, so my favorite segments included: the brilliant opening number entitled “Moving Pictures” as performed by emcee Neil Patrick Harris, with an assist from Anna Kendrick, Jack Black, numerous costumed dancers, some terrific special effects, and clips from many iconic movies; the beautifully sung melody by Lady Gaga as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music – with an appearance from Julie Andrews; and the first time ever that each movie nominated for Best Picture (all 8 of them) went home with at least one Oscar.

Of course there were also segments which I did not enjoy so much: an ultra-creepy John Travolta pawing at Idina Menzel’s face a year after butchering her name on stage; a lackluster Birdman parody by Neil Patrick Harris that paled in comparison to the recent work of Fred Armisen (Indie Spirit Awards) and Sesame Street (with Big Bird); the cut away shots to Michael Keaton chomping his chewing gum like a junior high kid; and the multitude of lame jokes (and absurd pre-show predictions) by Mr Harris that could have been excused if not for the poorly timed zinger directed at the dress choice of an award winner who had just moments before disclosed the suicide of her child.

Emotions always run high in a room full of artists, and the live performance of “Glory” from Best Picture nominee Selma was quite impressive … from the infamous bridge setting, to the vocals of Common and John Legend, to the dozens of folks who joined them onstage (Note: they were given much more time than the other live performances of nominated songs). Also registering high on the emotional meter were: Patricia Arquette’s call for pay equality, Eddie Redmayne’s pure joy at winning Best Actor, and the excitement, pride and perspective shown by Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski  towards his home country of Poland.  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, how does it make sense that sourpuss Sean Penn tries to crack wise with an ill-timed joke, while “comedian” Eddie Murphy reads the list of nominees like he is checking inventory at Home Depot?

On a personal note, my favorite film of the year was Boyhood, and while I am not upset that my second favorite film of the year won Best Picture, I do wish director Richard Linklater had received more accolades for his unique and extraordinary project. It was nice to see two screen veterans and professionals like Julianne Moore and JK Simmons take home their first Oscars, and I was ecstatic to see so many awards go to Wes Anderson’s beautiful The Grand Budapest Hotel and the frenetic Whiplash. We should all welcome the notice given to international talents like Emmanuel Lubezki, Alexandre Desplat and the previously mentioned Eddie Redmayne.

Alejandro Inarritu was the big winner of the night for his ground-breaking work on Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and on one of his trips to the stage he articulated a point of which I fully agree. He talked about how in the world of art, “works can’t be compared”, and when he has completed a project, it is that moment when he feels like he has succeeded. That is the heart of why the Academy remains confused about how to treat this event. The work of one actor cannot be objectively compared to that of another. No movie can fairly be determined superior to another. By their nature, works of creativity and art impact each of us differently, and the real test is … were we moved? Were we touched? Did the work cause us to think? Each of these things is more important than a shiny statuette … unless it’s one of those Lego Oscars, which, regardless what was contained in the $160,000 swag bags, were the absolute coolest item given away at the Dolby Theatre!

oscars7


OSCAR PREDICTIONS (2015)

February 18, 2015

oscars6 Greetings again from the darkness. With apologies to those who have depended on me to help with office Oscar pools, and even to my fellow movie lovers who have simply enjoyed arguing over the years, I am opting to put an end to my annual Oscar prediction column, effective immediately.

My track record of accurate predictions is significantly better than most of the big media experts, so this decision was not made due to fear of failure. Instead, my annoyance with the “headlines” and “top stories” related to the Oscar nomination process has soured me on the whole thing.

Every year, rather than celebrate the nominees, we are inundated with articles and TV reports focusing on “snubs” and “politics” and an “out of touch Academy”. I take movies about as seriously as anyone, yet fully understand that Academy voting does not take place in some bubble or vacuum. New voters are invited each year, and they maintain voting rights until death or incapacitation. It’s no secret that the Academy demographics skew older – white – male, and to assume these voters would vote in a manner that doesn’t involve their own personal tastes and preferences would be to ignore human nature. Just take a look at Olympic judges for figure skating, diving, gymnastics, etc.

As for the politics involved, would we really expect voters to not support those who have influenced their own careers, or might in the future? Isn’t self-interest a part of most decisions we make? Aren’t we able to acknowledge that when voting for the President of the United States, many votes are cast FOR or AGAINST a particular candidate based on a perceived personal connection (or bias) on details as fundamental as religion or skin color? If that decision-making process is utilized for electing the leader of the free world, perhaps it’s understandable that a similar process occurs for something as relatively minor as Best Actor or Best Director of a freaking MOVIE.

Mathematics also plays a role here. Due to the outcry over so many “worthy” films not receiving Best Picture nominations, the Academy responded a few years ago with a rule change which allows as many as ten (10) pictures to receive a nomination. None of the other major categories were affected, including Best Director, which remains at 5 nominations. This year eight (8) movies received Best Picture nominations, and immediately the ridiculous cries of “I suppose that movie directed itself” rung out.  Simple math tells us at least 3 directors of Best Picture nominated movies would not receive a Best Director nomination. Additionally, and more importantly, it should be noted that these are two distinct categories (Picture and Director). It’s certainly feasible, and highly likely, that some of the best work by directors was not accomplished on films nominated for Best Picture. An easy comparison is with Major League Baseball. The Manager of the World Series winning team may or may not have done the best coaching job amongst all the coaches in the league, which is why the World Series trophy and the Manager of the Year are two distinct and separate awards.

I do understand the emotions that follow movies. Everyone has their “favorite”, and often can’t understand why all their friends and movie critics and Oscar voters don’t feel the same way. But the accusations of racism and politics as related to Oscar voting seems to imply that the Academy has the power and responsibility to change society mores … even when these same traits are ever-present in elections from school boards to civic leaders and even our nationally elected officials. Perhaps we should expect more from the Academy, but it seems we should each look in the mirror before passing this buck.

Movies certainly have value in society. They entertain and inform and tug at our emotions, and the best ones generate lively debate and discussion. They re-tell history, introduce us to fascinating characters, educate us on different cultures, and teach us how to relate to each other. The Oscars, despite all the hoopla surrounding designer dresses and 6 figure $ earrings, are simply a celebration of an art form that is easily accessible to the masses. The “best” are not determined by a scientific formula, but rather a small group of people who have many of the same flaws and personality quirks as you and I. And while they may not always agree with our movie tastes, we should know they vote with a combination of heart and head … a messy combination that rarely results in perfection.

Just to be clear, I most certainly have my Oscar predictions and preferences in mind, but for the foreseeable future, will not be contributing to the morass of heavy-handed judgment that is all too prevalent at Oscar time. Though soured by the media fallout, I will just sit back, watch the presentation, and be thankful that Rob Lowe will never again perform with Snow White.

spoiled milk

 


McFARLAND USA

February 18, 2015

mcfarland Greetings again from the darkness. “A Disney movie” was once synonymous with good-hearted family fare. Even though the lure of big box office has caused the studio to expand their film boundaries a bit, no one does it better when the material is a heart-warming, inspiring story … especially if based on a true story. This latest has less in common with The Mighty Ducks, and more with Miracle, The Rookie, and Dreamer.

Based on a true story that began in 1987, Kevin Costner plays high school coach Jim White, who after a couple of unfortunate incidents, finds himself with a not so desirable teaching/coaching gig in the San Joaquin Valley in central California – specifically the poverty stricken farming community of McFarland. To say that life is hard in McFarland is a bit of an understatement. The families are mostly Hispanic and heavily dependent on crop picking. Once the kids are age 10, they are put to work in the fields before and after school.

Toting their prejudices, Coach White and his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters (one whom you will recognize from TV’s “Homeland“) arrive as outsiders, but quickly discover their neighbors are very proud people who value family and community. Coach also discovers that the area boys have developed a natural ability to run distances in the heat, so he forms a school cross country team, and the rest is literally history. The runners dominate the California state meet by winning 9 of the next 14 years, and many of the boys go off to college – something previously not even a remote dream for most.

Since this is Disney, most of the jagged edges are rounded off. Crime, discrimination, politics, racism, and poverty are present, but do not receive much attention. Director Niko Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) does nice work in keeping the story grounded and focused on the individuals. We get a feel for the skepticism and family obstacles faced by this first group of runners. More importantly, we witness the pride and involvement as the boys begin to have some success, and the sense of belonging that sneaks up on White and his family.

Costner does get a shot at a motivational speech, but it’s small in scope and wonderfully centered on what the boys have accomplished, rather than some unrelatable shot at changing the world. Seeing him on a “Barbie” bike brings a laugh, as does some of the high school boy chatter directed at their duck-out-of-water coach. We don’t really get to know the individual boys too much (some are actors, some are actual McFarland students), but the end credit video recap of where they are now (27 years later) really hits home as to the importance of guidance and mentorship for youngsters.

The film is extremely pleasant and the story’s roots in the real world lend credence to the inspirational message and underdog-overcoming-obstacles story. It’s also a reminder that opportunity to make a difference is all around us. Just look what Jim White and runners have accomplished!

**NOTE – for Bull Durham fans, Visalia is just up the road from McFarland (bringing Costner full circle).

watch the trailer:

 


THE DUFF (2015)

February 18, 2015

duff Greetings again from the darkness. I was never a teenage girl, and for that, I am quite thankful. By comparison, being a teenage guy was a breeze. No filmmaker was better than the great John Hughes at capturing the challenges of high school … especially for girls. The mysteries of adolescent social hierarchy has long been a favorite movie target, and director Ari Sandel (Oscar winner for his short film West Bank Story) and screenwriter Josh Cagan loosely base their film on the novel from Kody Keplinger.

Mae Whitman (from TV’s “Parenthood”) stars as Bianca, a very smart student who enjoys hanging with her two best friends Casey (Bianca Santos, Ouija) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). That all changes one evening at a party when Bianca’s neighbor, and the school’s alpha-jock, Wesley (Robbie Amell, Firestorm in TV’s “The Flash”), informs her that she is the titular “DUFF” … Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The term itself is quite offensive, but the movie does its best to soften the blow by explaining that it doesn’t necessarily mean ugly or fat – a confusing turn, but fortunate since Ms. Whitman is neither.

As you might imagine, the familiar terrain of teen angst movies is covered and any hope of real insight is dashed pretty early on. However, it does spend a significant amount of time driving home the point that social media plays a dominant role in every aspect of teen life these days, including cyber-bullying. It’s no wonder that insecurities abound … one never knows when their trip to the mall or make-out session with a mannequin will become a viral video.

There are familiar aspects of such classics as Pretty in Pink, She’s All That, and Mean Girls. Robbie Amell even looks very much like Michael Schoeffling from Sixteen Candles. However, the film features two of my movie pet peeves. First, Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell are both in their mid-20’s – entirely too old to be playing high school students. Secondly, Mr Amell plays a jock but clearly cannot throw a football like one – and he does it three cringe-inducing times.

Mae Whitman has excellent screen presence and comes across as a blend of Janeane Garofalo, Ellen Page, and Aubrey Plaza. That’s pretty high praise, but she elevates a script that needs it, and holds her own with screen vets like Allison Janney (as her distracted mom) and Ken Jeong (as her slightly loopy journalism teacher).

The film is a commentary on today’s high school life, but the predictability and obvious gags prevent it from ever going too deep or appealing to any audience other than “tweeners”. Still, any film that smacks down the nasty people (here played by Bella Thorne) and advises to be true to one’s self, can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer:

 


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