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Friday
Sep122014

TIFF Quickies: Behavior, Cub, The Gate, and The Farewell Party

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto, the last leg.

I came out of my last screening a few hours ago and a plane awaits me tomorrow which is a good thing since I'm running on fumes. Four more films need writeups and we'll probably do a podcast. But we'll worry about this tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day. My TIFF screenings ended tonight. And get this: Less than 48 hours after my return to NYC, critics screenings for NYFF begin. I'm not even exaggerating. No rest at all for poor Nathaniel.

 

 

LMAO. Tweet of the Year! Okay, on to the movies...

Behavior (Cuba)
A huge hit in Cuba, and their probable Oscar submission if they submit at all (they often skip it), Behavior tackles tough topics like educational buerocracies, dead-end poverty, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, prejudice against immigrants, you name it. More importantly it asks questions that have interested educators forever: how involved should a teacher be in the lives of her students? do you prepare them for life outside of school or merely provide them shelter from that life for a part of each day? Do you break the rules for one if you feel that child is a special case? Yet for all these heavy topics, provocative questions and the film's frequent classroom scenes, this drama never feels didactic or preachy but organically dramatized around its dimensional characterizations rather than characters as stand-ins for ideas/types (with a couple of exceptions). It's the story of an old passionate teacher Carmela (Alina Rodriguez), past retirement age, who is always at odds with the schoolboard because she's inflexible when it comes to bending rules to meet a student's needs. It's also the story of her class trouble-maker Chala (12 year old Armanda Valdez Friere in a frankly amazing debut), who the schoolboard wants to send to the Cuban equivalent of a juvie home. Chala is the sole breadwinner at home (through illegal means) and his mother drinks away the money rather than paying the bills. Carmela believes the kid has a good heart and continually demands disciplinary leeway at school.

a moving story of teacher and student

While many of the plot developments in Behavior are depressing and predictable, the movie is stubbornly hopeful, knowing the odds are against success but pressing on anyway. Writer director Ernesto Daranas, a fine new voice in Latin American cinema, makes sure this doesn't happen in a corny inspirational way, as in so many inferior teacher/student dramas do, but with roll up your sleeve grit in its narrative and smart visual choices - the camera is often exactly the right distance from the actors, to keep you fully aware of their tough environment and also their dreams. (Cue multiple shots of Chala on rooftops.) Behavior suggests that Carmela has saved a few students from their own lives, knows it, and will save as many more as she can manages before she dies... maybe even Chala. Her stubborn heroism? She knows that the broken system and these broken homes will long outlive her. B+

Cub (Belgium)
I got dragged to this slasher movie by two friends who I hadn't seen in a long time. Spent the film with fingers carefully crossed over my eyes for watching / not watching simultaneously. A group of Cub Scouts are out for a camping weekend and they pick a spot much further into some spooky woods than they were intending, woods they're warned against but you know how people are in movies, they never turn back when warned. The Scouts three barely adult supervisors tell the young boys the tale of Kai a boy who becomes a deadly werewolf at night. It's a legend meant for campfire scares but we see Kai right away, not a werewolf but a boy their age with a creepy one horned mask who watches them from afar. He takes an interest in one of them, a loner named Sam (Maurice Luijten), the film's lead. Kai doesn't attack him but starts the bloodletting elsewhere. It's mildly entertaining but the characters aren't that well delineated and I predicted the finale about 75 minutes in advance. My friends thought the kills were imaginative and I will concur that two of them were, particularly a morbidly funny group kill. But ... GROSS.

"GROSS". That's actually my full sophisticated one-word review, and come to think of it my review for all slasher movies. I have come to understand and admire the broader horror genre after years of reading great critics enthusing about it, but this subgenre I'll never get - even when it comes with subtitles.  C-

The Gate (France/Cambodia)
Like Labyrinth of Lies a few days back, The Gate benefits from a continually engaging true story. The new film from Regis Wargnier, who won the Oscar for the Catherine Deneuve epic Indochine, returns to that rich well of stories, French expatriates in countries they've colonized. The Gate, more appropriately titled Le temps des aveux in French, is based on the memoirs of a man named François Bizot (Raphaël Personnaez) who was arrested by the Khmer Rouge while he was innocently researching Buddhist traditions at monasteries. The communists believed this Frenchmen was a spy for America and the film becomes a battle of wits and test of humanity as Bizot and his captor Much (Phoeung Kompheak) argue and debate about Bizot's purpose in Cambodia and his fate. Like most good prisoner/captive dramas, their relationship is perversely intimate and the heart of the movie. Since its based on Bizot's memoirs, and the film begins near the ending, with Bizot returning to Cambodia we know he survives but things look bleak for a time and even when freed, the chaos isn't over since his wife and child are Cambodian/French and they don't have as much protection. Intense at times and surprisingly well acted -- most of the cast were non-actors aside from, of course, handsome French movie star Personnaez. B


The Farewell Party (Israel)
Israel's Oscars, "the Ophirs," have heartily embraced this dramedy about senior citizens who accidentally and after much prodding become crusaders for mercy killings of their terminally sick friends and spouses. It is far more tasteful than it sounds starting with heartbreaking decisions among longtime friends. But, curiously, the mood gets lighter and lighter in mood and the film funnier and funnier as it progresses. The comic highlight is a wonderfully cheeky display of solidarity when one of the friends is diagnosed with dementia but there are many little laughs along the way and each ensemble member finds a way to shine in a dialogue heavy film. It's a difficult film to describe, part drama about longterm love (both platonic and romantic), part ensemble black comedy, part agitprop about personal choice in matters of the end of life rather than machine-mandated life, and all parts delightful. It's not a done deal yet but it's easy to imagine this as Israel's Oscar submission and if submitted, an actual nominee in the Foreign Language Film category.   B+

Also at TIFF
A Little Chaos
The New Girlfriend
Wild
The Theory of Everything and Imitation Game
Foxcatcher and Song of the Sea
The Last Five Years
Wild Tales and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Force MajeureLife in a Fishbowl and Out of Nature
Mommy
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Charlie's Country

Friday
Sep122014

Stage Door: This is Our Youth

Here's Matthew Eng on a theatrical revival in NYC of interest to movie fans...

There’s always a bit of wariness involved when approaching our favorite artists’ earliest works, a back-of-the-brain hesitancy that carefully warns us to temper our expectations for these formative, often preliminary pieces. You know what I mean: those scrappily ambitious but almost inevitably uneven calling cards, the ones that were created pre-renown, even pre-agent. They were toiled over on the side, while dwelling in dubious “studio” apartments during stationary years spent wage-slaving in temp jobs, originally imagined while dawdling on a dorm mattress or in a childhood bedroom, when success was a foreign and totally faraway desire.

Success has surely been a much more familiar if nonetheless scattered concept for Kenneth Lonergan in the years since This is Our Youth broke out Off-Broadway in 1996, launching his own career on stage and screen, as well as those of original cast members Josh Hamilton, Missy Yager, and, most notably, that trusted Lonergan staple, Mark Ruffalo. I’m not overly acquainted with Lonergan’s playwriting aside from Youth, but as an ardent fan of You Can Count on Me and Margaret, it’s easy to see the same writerly penchant for considerate, character-driven narratives that would give us both Sammy and Terry Prescott, and (after much delay) Lisa Cohen and her entire, erratic orbit of friends, family members, and tragic, tenacious, and tough-talking passersby.

Click to read more ...

Friday
Sep122014

Is There a Right Way to Watch "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby"?

abstew in the house to ask a Burning Question...

Almost a year ago today, director Ned Benson premiered his film debut, an ambitious two part film about the breakdown of a modern relationship called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, at the Toronto Film Festival (and Nathaniel was there). The film was not just one, but two films of the same story, each told from the different viewpoint of its two main characters played by Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. It was an interesting concept and much like this summer's Boyhood, seemed like an amazing opportunity to show something unique and ambitious in the cineplex. 

Today the film finally arrives in select movie theaters. However, 12 months later, the way the film is coming to us is far different from the way it was originally conceived. The version that opens in NY and LA this weekend (and expanding next week) is actually a spliced two-hour combination of the two films now subtitled Them (which made its debut at Cannes this past May) with the original concept of two separate films, now called Him and Her, to be released a month later in October. But with three different versions of essentially the same story...

Is there a right way to see The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby? And perhaps more importantly, can all three films sustain enough interest across so many versions? [more...]

Click to read more ...

Friday
Sep122014

TIFF: Wild, Or How Witherspoon Got Her Groove Back

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto. Running on fumes... 

Color me surprised that my favorite among the consensus Best Picture hopeful Oscar launches from festival season (the others being Foxcatcher, Imitation Game and Theory of Everything... though I have yet to see Birdman which didn't play here) is Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild, an adaptation of the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. How could a months long solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail be so cinematic? The answer is in its smart mosaic, visual and aural, as Reese hikes through expansive physical and intimate mental terrain. The present and the past converse and overlap consistently in the sound design like fragments of song sung, hummed or played as if remembered - who is singing? and snippets of dialogue the same evocative way. 

There's not much to say about the plot, the film's most recent kin being Into the Wild though Wild is the stronger film. Reese Witherspoon reminds us why we were all so excited about her in the first place with effortless star magnetism. She doesn't turn on any megawatt charm or do anything strenuous at all with it other than trust that innate cinematic charisma to walk with her on the trail as film-elevating protective gear. That's gear Cheryl needs because those boots aren't made for walking and good god she's got a lot of baggage, both literal (her comically large backpack) and metaphoric, having let herself completely spiral towards a personal abyss with the death of her mother.

More...

Click to read more ...

Friday
Sep122014

"The Women" turns 75

Anne Marie here to celebrate a personal favorite. There are two ways to enjoy George Cukor’s sparkling comedy, The Women. The most obvious is to thrill in the delights of the best that a 1930s MGM comedy had to offer: an A-List, all-lady cast including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard and Joan Crawford; costumes designed by Adrian (with a Technicolor fashion show bonus), and lavish sets, from department stores to nightclubs to Reno, including a bizarrely beautiful bathtub courtesy of Cedric Gibbons. But strip the elegant frivolity away, and you see the true nature The Women: A claws out, teeth bared, no-holds-barred bitchfest.

The Women is social satire aimed squarely at the myth of love in marriage. Neither Clare Boothe Luce (original playwright) nor Anita Loos (who adapted the screenplay) was shy about uncovering the backbiting of upper class socialites. The fights get more vicious as the stakes rise for these rich women for whom marriage is as much a job as a happy accident of love.

The film centers on two knock-down, drag out fights.

ROUND ONE: Saintly Mother Mary Haines vs Perfume Counter Girl Crystal Allen in the dressing rooms of Saks Fifth Avenue. The barbed insults fly as Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, MGM’s reigning royalty, face off.

WINNER: It seems to be a draw. Crystal doesn’t fight fair, but Mary gets a few blows in for motherly morality.

ROUND TWO: Old Wife Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) vs New Wife Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard) in the wilds of Reno, all pretenses of civility stripped:

WINNER: Miriam gets a scar, but she also gets Sylvia’s husband. Here’s where the film gets tricky: Sylvia’s presented as a comedic villain, but she’s also in the exact same position as Mary, losing her husband to a lower class woman. The fact that Miriam Aarons is the victor in the fight and in the audience’s sympathy makes The Women better than a simple divorce comedy.

Of course, these are just two scenes in a film with more insults and innuendo than a Hedda Hopper gossip column. So this weekend, paint your nails Jungle Red, open a bottle of wine, and watch the film while thanking heavens you don’t have friends like these.

Whom do you root for: Mary or Crystal or Miriam or Sylvia?  Post your favorite moments below!

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