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.

John Canemaker’s “The Lost Notebook” documents Disney at its best moment

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/the-gist/for-reels/john-canemakers-lost-notebook-documents-disney-best-moment/

If you’ve never heard of Herman Schultheis, you’re not alone. Ironically a relentless self-promoter who may have suffered from a persecution complex, Schultheis was a minor employee at the Disney Animation Studios from 1937 until 1941, during the period that saw their best output: PinocchioBambiDumbo and Fantasia.

Schultheis was born in Germany at the turn of the century and emigrated to New York just before the Depression. He considered himself a jack of all trades (though some of his co-workers would contend that he was a master of none), and was fixated on working in Hollywood to show off the talents he thought so highly of.

Though not an animator like Ub Iwerks or Ward Kimball, Schultheis did have an art of a kind: his technical skills in photography and photo manipulation. Once he was finally hired at a studio after years of doggedly trying, he helped improve the studio’s workflow with tests that brought greater clarity to animation photostats and Kodak’s photochemical wash-off relief cels, which reproduced animation sheets more faithfully than hand-inked cels did.

But anything he may have added to the films seems dwarfed now by the release of this immaculately kept and fully annotated notebook, which contains innumerable notes and diagrams on effects shots, research photographs, promotional stills and photographs of life at the Disney Animation Studios: men and women at work creating timeless films.

From an animation standpoint, the notes and diagrams are an amazing discovery. The trove of details and technical drawings about how effects and gags were done, diagrams and test drawings (especially of the multiplane camera shot that opens Pinocchio) is an especially exciting find. From a film history view, it’s the behind-the-scenes photos on the lot at the new and old Disney Studios that make the price worthwhile.

But I would come to a full stop before calling this Disneyana, which is, let’s be honest, a catchall term for the least interesting of all things Disney. This is an animation history book that just happens to document Disney. If Schultheis had worked at Warner’s or Hanna-Barbera, it would be just as insightful — though the period he worked at Disney was particularly interesting because it was during a time before the employee strike, when Walt didn’t seem to care about inflated budgets as much as the quality of the animation.

Schultheis was a polarizing figure inside the studio, however. He had his champions, but also his critics, the most vocal of whom was fellow effects man Bob Broughton, who called Schultheis a glory hog, allowing that he made contributions to the films, but never as the chief innovator. In the notebook that Canemaker’s book reproduces in full, it’s rare to see anyone else’s work, or at least anyone else credited for their work. If you didn’t know better, you might think that Schultheis was Walt Disney’s secret identity, so much credit is taken. It goes further still: There were whisper campaigns about Schultheis being a Hitler-lover (doubtful) and a Nazi spy (very doubtful), and in maybe the worst insult someone could give at the time, Broughton called him the least member of the Disney family. He may have had personal failings and been the least enmeshed member of the Disney family, but sometimes that’s the only way you get to take all of the pictures.

Can the Maya Rudolph Show survive the fact that no one likes variety shows?

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/the-gist/for-reels/can-maya-rudolph-show-survive-fact-one-likes-variety-shows/

Last night NBC aired the pilot for The Maya Rudolph Show, an hour-long variety show that featured Sean Hayes, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen, Kristin Bell and Craig Robinson, with Janelle Monae as the musical guest performing Electric Lady.

Hosted, of course, by Rudolph, the show doesn’t exactly throw it back to the Sid Ceaser Caesar or Muppets-style comedy-variety show, but sticks very close to its SNL roots — a little too close to separate itself from the superior Saturday show.

Overall, the show featured too much Sean Hayes and too many 12:50 slot quality sketches, including a dance off with Andy Samberg’s as Tony Manero (that could have been funny without Samberg), a kind of unbearable parody of The 25,000 Pyramid and Frozen sketch, with Rudolph, Bell and Hayes write the sequel:

Variety shows have been dead since the 80s, and with good reason. They’re a terrible television format, especially as the media landscape grows and tries to consume all of out waking hours. No one needs to rely on network television to see the stars they like as they did in the 40s and 50s. These days it’s harder to avoid seeing the stars you like than it is to see or read about them in far too much detail. We have little need for variety shows because everything else we can see on a screen to so tailored to our specific wants that the format falls to pieces the second something we don’t 100% like comes on.

You could argue that SNL is a comedy-variety show, but it’s so extremely tailored to its audience that it doesn’t really meet the “something for everyone” idea.

Those thoughts aside, there wasn’t much variety to this variety show. Outside of the monologue song (which featured backup dancers, a pony and plate spinning), it was a steady sea of dance numbers and sketch after sketch, with the enumerated guests (notably missing her more famous friends, Kristin Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) playing all of the parts.

I could easily see this working as a stage show, especially a Vegas stage show, but on TV it’s just not a format that works anymore. We don’t want something for everyone, we want everything for us.

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.

Can Girl Meets World live up to its original?

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/the-gist/for-reels/can-girl-meets-world-live-original/

In our age of sequels, prequels and reboots, it’s the most fair-unfair question that exists: will it live up to the original? It’s a question that might not matter to those younger than the original, but to anyone of the right age for the original, it’s really the only question worth asking.

It’s a question we’ll ask a lot today between the opening of The Amazing Spider-man 2 and the just-released 60 second promo for the long awaited Girl Meets World.

The show sees the cast of Boy Meets World set 15 or so years along their journey in life, where Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel) have transitioned from high school sweethearts to an old married couple with two kids. The show centers on their oldest daughter, Riley (Rowan Blanchard), who looks to have inherited her dad’s quirky spunk more than her mom’s brainy practicality, but also on the family unit as a whole as the original did.

It will also feature Rider Strong, Betsy Randle, William Russ, Will Friedle and William Matthews in cameo roles throughout the series.

The show will not begin airing until the end of next month, but the anticipation has been building for months now as the cast have Tweeted out photos of the on-set reunions.

I was a little too old for Boy Meets World to have been my show in the same way The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Salute Your Shorts were. Those are the shows I feel possessive about. I remember Boy Meets World mostly existing in the background while stuck hanging out with younger cousins or friends with younger siblings. Through the casual osmosis of teenage ennui, it ended up seeping in though, and I eventually found myself idly watching reruns and becoming invested in the characters.

Strangely, I became most invested in Cory, the show’s main character. I say strangely because I usually find the main character to be the most boring. Maybe because he was already set in my brain as Fred Savage’s little brother Cory didn’t seem like the typical, boring main character.

The original show was done in the classic mold of zany comedy set up that ended with heart, not entirely unlike it’s Disney extended family cousins Step by Step or Full House, which ran the TGIF table in the 90s. But it was also entirely different. Entirely.

Part of the charm — maybe all of the charm — was that it was so dorky. Cory and Topanga were goddamn dorks, but they never slipped into clownishness like Steve Urkel or Balki Bartokomous. Shawn had his Fonzie thing, and Eric had his classic twist on the bimbo thing, but Cory and Topanga were dorks on a level I can’t remember seeing before. And of course they were backed up by the Father of Dorks in William Daniels, who finally had a body again after playing K.I.T. on Knight Rider.

The first promo for the show that Disney released last month showed none of that. If it’s unfair to question whether a show can live up to its predecessor, it’s cruel to release something so underwhelming as the first impression:

I almost expected an “oh, Mylanta” or “of course not, don’t be ridikulus” by the end of this clip. This clip had all of the appeal of Drexell’s Class or Thunder Alley.

It’s also a good example of how first impressions are sometimes pretty awful. Here is the spot-on promo that Disney uploaded this afternoon:

That’s a huge difference in approach and in general quality. It actually has the elusive feel of the original, but it’s removed from the original too — as an update should be. Riley and her best friend, Maya (Sabrina Carpenter), don’t have the dorkiness that made Cory and Topanga so special, but they seem to have something, and it’s kind of refreshing that neither of them are played by anyone’s younger sister (sorry Ben).

And, maybe most importantly, the show is not above a good nose pick joke, which bodes well.

That’s about as far as I was to go based on 60 seconds though. Sometimes second impressions aren’t worth that much either.

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.