2014 Top Ten

01) The Tale of Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata (Japan) **** 1/2
02) We Are the Best! – Lukas Moodysson (Sweden)
03) Whiplash – Damien Chazelle (USA)
04) Locke – Steven Knight (Britain) ****
05) Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu (USA)
06) The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson (USA)
07) Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski (Poland)
08) Ernest and Celestine – Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner (France/Belgium)
09) Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer (Britain)
10) The Great Passage – Yuya Ishii (Japan)

We Are the Best! – Lukas Moodysson (2014)

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/the-gist/for-reels/vod-review-coco-lukas-moodyssons-punk-coming-age-best/

Based on a comic book by Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best reminds me of this famous old punk flyer — here are three chords, now start a band.

The girls in this film, Bobo and Klara (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin), a couple of seventh grade punks living in Stockholm in the early 80s, don’t even know the three chords when they start their band on a whim to get one over on a group of metalheads who torment them on a daily basis, calling them ugly and dykes.

They learn to piece it together and make a good, loud racket once they enlist fellow classmate and misfit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) after she is mercilessly booed during a school talent show for playing classical guitar in the time of ABBA.

Punk is dead, they’re constantly reminded, and worse (!), they’re girls.

Struggling against the idea that young girls in a punk band are a novelty act (a girl band), cute to look at but not much else is as much at the core of the film as friendship. It’s that sense that makes the whole “aww, adorable” critical reaction to the film a burden. To watch even part of the film is to know that Bobo, Klara and Hedvig would roll their eyes and make vomit faces at the idea that they’re aww, adorable.

It’ll be fun to have a girl band, one of the clueless counselors says when they’re invited to play a Christmas concert. Roll eyes.

Look at Bobo, she cut her own hair. Roll eyes.

The energy you dive into things when you reach your teenage years, when you’re this new person in your own eyes, but the same old person in everyone else’s eyes, will always be fascinating to me. It’s hard to watch the awkwardness at times, especially dealing with parents who can’t accept the new person they see, but that’s the stuff that binds all of us together, misfit or not, punk or not.

As much as the film shows off a return to form for Moodysson — who hasn’t made a film this good since his first, Fucking Åmål (aka Show Me Love) — it’s the killer chemistry between Miras Barkhammar and Grosin that make the film jump off of the screen and dive into your soul.

Sleeping over at Klara’s one night, Bobo has a drunken emotional breakdown — over so much: never being as cute as Klara, never getting attention from boys, having shitty parents, getting picked on, feeling like a loser and how everything is worthless — Klara is gentle, hugging her best friend as she spills her feelings and calmly reminds her that she is in the best band in the world. She is in the best band in the world and has two friends who love her. That’s all you need.

Palo Alto – Gia Coppola (2014)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/gia-coppola-talks-about-palo-alto-1.1701242

PIECES OF APRIL
Gia, the next Coppola in line, on adapting Palo Alto and being her own Coppola
By: Rob Boylan

Like the Kennedys in politics or the Mannings in football, film has its own dynasty in the form of the Coppola family. Along with the Hustons, the Coppolas are the only family in Oscar history to have three generations of winners. Together, the family owns 8 statues (double the Hustons’ 4), spread across Carmine, Francis, Sofia and Nicolas Cage, with a combined 24 nominations. And now there is a new generation starting to wade out into the world being spearheaded by Gia Coppola and her film Palo Alto.

But when I ask her about growing up in a dynasty over the phone, the tenor of conversation shifts. “I mean, I don’t know any other way of living. It’s very normal,” she says with a slight sense of frustration growing in her voice. “I have such an appreciation for my family and their movies. I’ve learned so much from them just growing up on their movie sets, but at the same time I wanted to grow and face my own challenges.

“[But Palo Alto] was made through James’s production company [instead of American Zoetrope], so it was really important for me to do this on my own and find my own voice.”

The James in that sentence is James Franco, whose book of short stories was adapted by Coppola for the screen, and who also co-stars as the charming-creepy girls soccer coach, Mr. B.

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The stories are somewhat separate in the book, but have been combined by Coppola to form a rotisserie of angst, alienation, abuse and ennui where bad decisions and drugs abound for the loosely affiliated group of friends, April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin).

April and Teddy make up much of the film’s focus. They are mutual crushes, but because of crossed wires neither realizes it and both look elsewhere for someone to love them back. That leads them down different paths, but both of them only find emotional landmines in their way.

April is the sensitive soul who puts on a nonchalant front, who smokes and drinks because she wouldn’t fit in otherwise. Even with that front, she doesn’t really fit in. She flits from group to group searching for a comfortable niche to fit into, but never really finds anything but a parody of comfort when Mr. B begins to take an interest in her as more than Coach.

Teddy is more sensitive than the rest as well, but its to a more skewed degree than April. He is sensitive and still childlike — in one piece of the film he dreams of being in a wolf suit, playing an anguished Max from Where the Wild Things Are — but he stops a few steps short of April’s sensitive nature. Even with a loving family at home, his front goes a few steps beyond when Teddy crashes his car while drunk and flees the scene.

07

“James’s book is dark at times. I tried to make certain things a little hopeful, but I also knew I didn’t want to totally change it … That stuff does go on and life is dark sometimes.” Things do seem darker of late, kids more wired than I remember. “I don’t think emotions change,” she says when I ask if kids are under more pressure to succeed than when she or I were their age. “Its kind of an organic thing that we all go through where we’re physically and hormonally changing. It feels really heavy.”

It makes me wonder if a film can be too organic though. In my head I can counter the idea that the film meanders or doesn’t find its dramatic ending by telling myself that teenagers meander and only have dramatic endings if they die. If being a teenager weren’t intensely boring, it wouldn’t lead to drinking or seeing which drug is the most fun to abuse the hell out of. The fact that teenagers need something else to make them more interesting maybe means that films about teenagers need something else to make them as interesting as they can be. Maybe not always as extreme a basketball playing wolfman, but something. In that sense, Palo Alto only manages to get to third base. As an audience, it’s a good time but we keep our underwear on.

Nobody makes a perfect first film though. To harp on the family angle again for a moment, neither Dementia 13 nor The Virgin Suicides were perfect either. It takes a minute to learn the rules of the game and how to bend them to your will to make the picture you want to make. To distinguish yourself in the T-Rex-sized footprints of such a famous family can’t be an easy task, but on the other hand, who would bet against a Coppola?

Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski (2014)

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/the-gist/for-reels/film-review-ida-pawel-pawlikowski-opens-today-enzian/

If there have been institutions more maligned in film than the Church and the iron curtain, they can’t have been by much. It’s one of the few things that religion and communism have in common in this world, and it ends up making for a sublime road movie in Pawel Pawlikowski’s black & white, full frame Ida.

The Ida of the title (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice nun who was orphaned during the war and who is on the verge of taking her vows. It’s the winter of 1962 and she has barely been beyond the walls of the convent she was delivered to as a baby when she is abruptly sent by the Mother Superior to see her last remaining family member, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who would not take custody of her once the war was over.

Wanda is a Party judge, a severe and sharp woman who looks completely defeated by life by the time we meet her. The photo album she shows Ida — full of pictures of the family before the war, even photos of a very young Ida — does seem to spark her somewhat, but there is so much pain buried behind the photos that it doesn’t last.

Piqued by the photos, Ida wishes to visit the family’s home town and see the graves of her parents once before she returns to the convent and takes her vows. In the end though, this is a World War II story, and nothing is pretty and neat. Her parents have no graves, Wanda tells her. The family is Jewish and was betrayed by neighbors who had been helping to hide them.

Ida, maybe partly from naivety, is undeterred in her wish and the two set off to the country knowing the potentially destructive power of what they might find.

Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is a revelation as Ida. It’s an unassuming, quiet role, one that requires that she spend most of the film covered in a habit, but it doesn’t hold her back in the slightest. She smolders under her coif, giving a teasing, knowing performance where less is more, doling out hints to a much richer inner life than one might imagine from the outside. It’s remarkably assured and minimalistic, not at all kind of performance you expect from a first time actress.

As her travel partner, Agata Kulesza has a more traditional repressed role, but expresses it with aplomb at every step. The pair are at their best when Wanda asks Ida if she has sinful thoughts. The smirk that Trzebuchowska delivers is playful and devastating you want to bonk her on the head with an Oscar for it.

The stark black & white cinematography is gorgeous, conveying the coldness of the scene and Ida and Wanda’s emotional states perfectly. It’s something that the full frame aspect ratio helps with as well. I haven’t been a fan of the reemergence of full frame photography, but something about it here is so fitting that I can’t find fault with it. It almost gives the film a sense of being in a time machine, as if the film were actually shot in the 1960s when the wounds of the war were still fresh and just starting to scab over. In a film full of opposites in an orbit of attraction and repulsion, it helps adjust our focus. It’s a declaration that Pawlikowski doesn’t want to waste our time, and he doesn’t.

The Double – Richard Ayoade (2014)

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/the-gist/for-reels/vod-review-richard-ayoades-the-double/

I have a suspicion that The Double, the second feature by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, will end up being one of the most sneaky films of the year, psychologically speaking. The film, which mixes everything from Dostoevsky and Kafka to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, is the kind of thing that says more about the viewer than it ever could about the artists.

The film stars Jessie Eisenberg and Jessie Eisenberg as Simon James and James Simon, employees at the same faceless bureaucratic conglomerate who look remarkably alike, though no one seems to notice.

Simon is a smart, hard worker who is held back by his timid anonymity; James is a confident, charming social climber who gets ahead by using Simon’s work as his own to impress their dipstick boss, Mr Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn). If they sound like George McFly and Biff Tannen, they’re not. Simon is much more of a doormat than George ever was.

Though it gets there quickly, Simon and James’s relationship doesn’t start out in the dumps. In exchange for doing his work for him, James agrees to help Simon get the attention of his office crush, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the cute girl who works in the copy office that Simon admires from afar.

Naturally, she falls for the charismatic James instead of the insubstantial Simon.

And she falls hard.

It’s hard to find an aspect of this story that hasn’t been picked over at great length in so many indie films in the past that I’ve lost count at this point. Identity crises and unrequited love — not to mention visually quoting Billy Wilder and Franz Kafka — are the motor oil that keeps the indie film machine going, but there is something else going on in The Double too that makes it special.

We’re not necessarily asked through cinematic means to side with the painfully lonely and socially awkward Simon, as we usually are in an unrequited love story. He’s basically, whether he realizes it or not, a creepy dude who doesn’t really deserve Hannah. He spies on her with a telescope and picks through her trash for the artistic scraps that she throws away. Through the lens of the the telescope, Simon should be able to see that Hannah also isn’t the manic pixie dream girl he’s in love with in his head, but he’s such a blank personality that he can’t tell the difference.

Nor are we necessarily asked to identify with James, which is where the sneakiness lies. Ayoade keeps his distance from typicality, deflecting the identity question with a free riffing symphony of beautifully deadpan comedy (aided by a great supporting cast of Shawn, Cathy Moriarty, Noah Taylor, Chris O’Dowd, Paddy Considine, and Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige who played opposite one another in Ayoade’s first film Submarine).

Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony Korine) don’t seem to hold Simon in contempt, but they don’t hold back making him the butt of their film’s cosmic joke either. It’s an existentially cutting film. Even though we’re not manipulated into identifying with either Eisenberg, the divide of love and hate for this film might exist in whether you do or don’t. If you do identify with Simon or James, or at least with the central question of the film, it’s an insightful film; if you don’t, it’s a pretentious art school waste of time.

The Devil’s Knot – Atom Egoyan (2014)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/the-devil-s-knot-memphis-three-take-five-1.1681402

If you don’t know the story of the West Memphis Three by now, I’m not sure where you’ve been living. Even rock-dwellers have heard it. There have been four documentaries, a handful of books, news stories and countless rallies with musicians as diverse as Metallica, Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam lending their names to the cause of three misfit teenagers from rural Arkansas who were convicted of the murder of three pre-teens in the early 1990s.

Whether they were wrongfully convicted or not has been contested in the court of law and of public opinion for much of the last two decades, since the first documentary, Paradise Lost, aired on HBO in 1996, three years after the murder and two years after their conviction.

If, by chance, you’ve somehow never heard of it, this film – a “based on a true story” feature, not a documentary – re-creates the story of the murder of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in May 1993. The nature of the murders – the boys were found in the woods naked and hog-tied with their own shoelaces – led investigators to believe this was an occult murder, and they eventually set their sights on three local misfits: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.

At the center of the film is Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie Branch, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who is suspicious of the style of justice meted out by the local police. Overwhelmed, the police let the pressure of the case, and of the media interest in it, lead them down a rabbit hole of bungles and fabrications in order to send the boys to trial as quickly as possible in a kangaroo court.

It’s unclear what the director, Atom Egoyan, intended to do here. The film has no personality or authorship. There is no arc or drama, only scenes lined up one after another. Egoyan gets so bogged down in the facts of the case that he sidesteps telling the story at all. It has no point of view.

That leaves Colin Firth largely wasted as the film’s conscience, and Witherspoon has not exactly found her comeback as the emotionally erratic mother of Stevie Branch; but it’s Egoyan who has failed the story, not their performances.

What might end up being the most interesting thing about this film is that it was eventually the wedge that drove two of the suspects, Baldwin and Echols, apart. Echols, who was an executive producer on the documentary West of Memphis, objected to how he was portrayed in the script for Devil’s Knot, for which Baldwin was an executive producer. Being too close and too protective of their own stories and their own personas may be the downfall of both films, but that’s especially the case with Devil’s Knot, which not only has no suspense to speak of, but also has no closure, art or direction. If you’ve come to expect more from Egoyan over the years, he’s failed you as well.

Fading Gigolo – John Turturro (2014)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/just-a-faded-gigolo-1.1681400

John Turturro is not, objectively speaking, a handsome man. You know this, and I know this. He knows it, too. Subjectively speaking, that changes. He’s confident, conversant, funny and has a hint of the maniac in his eyes. His face, you find as you take all of that into consideration, has real character.

In Fading Gigolo, which sees him play a mild-mannered florist turned reluctant (but rather high-priced) gigolo named Fioravante, that punim is the tool that Turturro wields as both actor and director. If he were handsome, it wouldn’t be a comedy; if he were without the many traits that give him character, it would just be a joke. But his face is the Goldilocks example: just right.

With Woody Allen as his pimp, Murray, Fioravante becomes the No. 1 loverman of his ZIP code – for a price, which they split. It’s all in practice for the initial request that comes to Murray from his therapist (Sharon Stone), who nervously wants him to arrange a three-way for her and her curious best friend, Selima (Sofía Vergara).

It’s a somewhat scatterbrained, novelistic film, though. The real plot is set off when Murray brings his adopted black child to the “lice lady,” a Hasidic widow named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis). Thinking she needs some comfort, Murray suggests Fioravante’s services under the guise of massage therapy. En route to her session with Fioravante, the Jewish neighborhood watchman (Liev Schreiber) with a lifelong crush on Avigal follows her to the appointment and susses out Murray’s plan, eventually kidnapping Murray to bring him before a rabbinical tribunal.

A complicated plot is fine for a novel, but in film, simple is almost always better. Each half of the plot is strange and funny in an entirely different way, but the two never mesh as a whole like they might in a novel, so the wildness of this storyline grab bag leaves the stitching far too visible.

But there is an almost perfect passage around the middle in which all of the extraneous elements part to the side and the film’s loneliness is examined. Fioravante and Avigal are characters from two different worlds, worlds that make it impossible to do anything about the budding connection they find together, but they smash face-first into the wall of love without worrying about it. For the briefest moment they find themselves. Not as a couple, but what they’re about as individuals.

It’s an elating, surprising piece of story, but it’s far too short-lived. Despite some funny moments, especially early on, before the film decides that it wants to be a little bit more than a straight comedy, you would have to say that the gigolo storyline doesn’t really fit into the film outside of the title. It’s a MacGuffin, but not on purpose. It was meant to be the funny part, but the story outgrew it and no one told Turturro. It’s brave to do something so different, but brave efforts don’t always work out. If they did, they wouldn’t require any bravery.

Dom Hemingway – Richard Shepard (2014)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/dom-hemingway-1.1677529

Bob Hoskins. Michael Caine. Terence Stamp. Clive Owen. Stephen Graham. When you think about the most noteworthy faces of English hard-men films, these are some of the names that come to mind. But Jude Law? That’s not a name that jumps out at you. Even when he’s played killers and criminals in the past (Shopping, Road to Perdition), you can still see the smiling pretty boy staring at you from under the makeup, hoping he doesn’t get caught out in a world he doesn’t belong in.

Except as Dom Hemingway, he does belong. As Dom Hemingway, he’s not a smiling pretty boy. He’s doughy and rude, bearded and maniacal – and damned funny, too.

Dom has been in jail for more than a decade, taking the time inside by himself instead of dropping the dime on his boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demián Bichir). In the intervening years, Mr. Fontaine has grown more rich and powerful while Dom’s life has become tattered. His wife has divorced him, remarried and died of cancer, and his only daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), hates his guts for the betrayal and for having to grow up without a father.

Now that he’s served his time and gotten out, though, he wants what is owed to him: money, a lot of it, and Evelyn back in his life. But neither are as easy as that.

The film is a black comedy in the tradition of Snatch and Bronson, though it comes in a tick below both. Its run of sight gags and one-liners are genuinely funny, but the American instinct to always add heart to the story keeps it from reaching the truly iconic-funny heights that Guy Ritchie and Nicolas Winding Refn reached in their films.

That’s not to say it was a move in error. Dom and Evelyn’s push-pull story works in the framework of the film, and director Richard Shepard gets touching, funny moments between Dom and his young grandson, Jawara (Jordan Nash), but it sticks out somewhat, hurting the depth of shading to a degree.

Emilia Clarke, in her first real film role since shooting to fame as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, doesn’t have quite as meaty a role as she does when she plays the Khaleesi, but she is bright and believable. There is a lot of gravity to her character, and she holds it well, though her real standout scenes might be the ones in which she fronts a Pogues-esque band, including singing a cover of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.”

I’ve always been on the fence about Law. For every Gattaca or Closer, there are a handful of The Holidays and Cold Mountains to contend with. But if Dom isn’t his best performance, it’s certainly his funniest. I don’t know that it takes me off the fence, or makes me think he’s got a Matthew McConaughey streak coming, but he’s got three in a row now between this, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Anna Karenina and it could easily become one.

Ernest & Celestine – Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner (2014)

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Love is love. It’s a simple idea that so many people can’t grasp. Love is nothing to be afraid of. Black and white, boy and boy, girl and girl — or indeed, mouse and bear — it’s never anything to be afraid of. But it seems to only make sense to one inquisitive mouse, Celestine (Mackenzie Foy), and one hungry Bear, Ernest (Forest Whitaker), who meet quite by accident when Ernest saves Celestine’s life only to then try and eat her for a snack.

In the film’s world that is inhabited by animals like Art Speigelman’s Maus, the other mice are afraid though, and the other bears. Mice live in underground, bears above ground, and the two share very little with each other. When Ernest and Celestine find themselves on the wrong side of the law in both the bear and mice world that notion is challenged in startlingly emotional ways and the unlikely pair find each other to be perfect protectors for each other in different ways.

The animation, done in a sumptuous broken-line storybook-style watercolor, is outstanding. Despite the rumors of its demise, 2D hand-drawn animation isn’t dead, in fact it’s becoming vital again in Europe, and this is a brilliant example of what it could be again.

Forev – Molly Green and James Leffler (2014)

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We’ve all proposed to someone we barely know as a joke, right? Growing up, the movies we watched taught us that you can get to know a person intimately enough to marry them in a single day. Love is magic and predestined and nothing ever goes wrong. In the movies, when you ask a girl you barely know to marry you, she says yes and you go forth and have wonderful times together. So there is no reason to doubt the strength of Pete (Matt Mider) and Sophie’s (Noël Wells) engagement. Someone should tell that to Pete’s little sister, Jess (Amanda Bauer) who mocks their coming nuptials when the three get stranded outside of Phoenix during a road trip.

Even for a low budget indie, Forev is a kind of dumpy film. It’s the kind of film that feels like a bunch of friends got together over a few weekends with someone’s dad’s DV cam and banged it all out on the first take, just for fun. From the surface look of it, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. But then something happened: I laughed. And I laughed again. Though some of the drama in the middle is a little on the stock side, Wells and Mider’s genuine and surprising on-screen chemistry, and Green and Leffler’s subtle, biting script bring it back from the brink. It doesn’t outdo Eternal Sunshine as commentary on the recklessness of movie romance on real romance, but it has plenty to say on the subject.