From The Film Stage — Books on Filmmaking: ‘The Force Awakens,’ Spike Lee, Pixar, and More

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My latest books piece for The Film Stage is heavy on The Force Awakens, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Take a look. (Amazon links to all books can be found at the link.)

Force Awakens fever is still gripping the film industry two months after the release of the seventh Star Wars entry, and the world of cinema-centric books is just as Snoke-obsessed. But there’s plenty more worth snagging, including in-depth analyses of Pixar and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a lavish study of musicals, and a graphic stunner called Filmish.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary by Pablo Hidalgo (DK Publishing)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DK’s Star Wars visual  dictionaries are, quite simply, must-owns. (Even the three prequel editions are fascinating.) And the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary might be the best yet. Author Pablo Hidalgo goes deep, providing everything you wanted to know about Jakku (but were afraid to ask), offering insight on briefly seen characters like Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka, and breaking down exactly why the “crossguard blades” of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber are a necessity. Plus, the film stills and close-up images are a Star Wars geek’s dream come true. Been coveting a good look at Han Solo’s insulated boots and Rey’s pilot doll? You got it.

Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film by Edward Ross (Abrams Books)

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While technically a 2015 release, I feel confident in saying the winner of Cinephile’s Most Beloved Book of 2016 has arrived. Edward Ross’s Filmishis, as its subtitle puts it, “a graphic journey through film,” one that touches on more than 300 films, Centered on concepts like “the eye,” “the body,” “voice and language,” and “power and ideology,” Filmish is a joy to page through. Part of the fun is identifying the films referenced, and happily, Ross does include a filmography. How eclectic is the mix? Everything from They Live to Hiroshima, Mon Amour makes an appearance. Filmish would be an especially perfect read for a budding young film fanatic; I wish I’d had it as a teen obsessively taping old films on Turner Classic Movies.

Richard Pryor: American Id by Jason Bailey (The Critical Press)

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Writer Jason Bailey’s books on Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen are two of the most enjoyable filmmaking reads in recent years. He shifts gears with the essay collection Richard Pryor: American Id, but the results are no less impressive. Bailey opens with an analysis of “the most riveting footage ever captured of Richard Pryor,” a trainwreck of a morning-show interview shot on the Arizona set of Stir Crazy. “You cannot take your eyes off it,” Bailey writes, sending the reader racing to YouTube for a viewing of the coke-crazed, deliriously profane comic. The interview provides a unique intro to a text exploring Pryor’s work, his life, and racial identity. You’re unlikely to find a more fascinating 80-page read.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Official Novelization by Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey/LucasBooks)

Star Wars The Force Awakens novelization

It is certainly fitting that Alan Dean Foster, author of the novelization of A New Hope and famous spin-off novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, was chosen to write the novelization of The Force Awakens. The differences between the film and the text have been well-documented — Unkar Plutt follows Rey to Maz Kanata’s place and loses a limb in the process, Finn and Rey steal a snowspeeder — and certainly add to one’s enjoyment of the film itself. While some of the added dialogue is rather silly (“We’ll have a party later,” Han tells the reunited Finn and Rey. “I’ll bring the cake.”), Foster’s Force Awakens is a brisk, entertaining read that stands nicely on its own.

Woody: The Biography by David Evanier (St. Martin’s Press)

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Yes, David Evanier’s Woody: The Biography is yet another tome about the films and personal controversies surrounding Woody Allen. What makes this one stand out is its analysis of Allen’s recent cinematic output a well as the details surrounding the recently resurfaced accusations of Dylan Farrow. In addition, Evanier’s book concludes with a chat — although not an interview — with the man himself. “[Our] conversation encompassed the moral realities of the world we live in: discussion of the Holocaust, discussion of art and the idea of a masterpiece versus frivolity,” the author writes. While we’re left wishing for even more highlights of the one-on-one chat, what’s here is enough to bring the biography to a grand close.

Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story (DK Publishing)

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Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story is a coffee-table stunner for any lover of Broadway, or the film adaptations that often follow stage success. The sheer scope of this visual extravaganza makes it a major achievement. Starting in 17th century France and stretching all the way to Hamilton (a very appropriate ending), the text is as entertaining as it is educational. And while a Sondheim timeline and breakdown of Julie Taymor’s approach toThe Lion King might not be groundbreaking, in the context of Musicals such elements seem remarkably fresh.

The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak (Abrams Books)

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Of all the new Force Awakens-themed literary releases, the one that offers the finest sense of how the film came together is surely The Art of The Force Awakens. In this remarkable text, we witness how young heroes “Kira and Sam” developed into Rey and Finn, how the concept of a “Jedi killer” morphed into Kylo Ren, and what a film featuring more direct involvement from Luke Skywalker may have looked like. The Art also makes clear that the much-debated parallels with A New Hope from a visual and storytelling perspective were always intentional. Did the Starkiller Base design remind you of the Death Star? Of course it did. As art director Kevin Jenkins puts it, “It’s a massive homage.”

Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled by Ashley Clark (The Critical Press)

Facing Blackness

Fifteen years after its release, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled remains one of the most complex films of its director’s career. All too often it has been disregarded, so it is high time for a contemplative book like Ashley Clark’sFacing Blackness. Yes, Bamboozled is “hardly fan favorite material,” Clark writes, but also a radical effort that harnesses “blackface imagery in complex and provocative ways.” While she finds the satire “occasionally muddy,” Clark also rightly finds Bamboozled to be a “horror film” that “streaks the screen with unhealed psychic scars.” This is brilliant, essential writing about an unforgettable film.

 

 

Yesterday Is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios by Josh Spiegel (The Critical Press)

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Movie Mezzanine’s Josh Spiegel shines new light on the Pixar oeuvre inYesterday Is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios. Spiegel adroitly makes the case for nostalgia, “the renewable fuel of modern popular culture,” as central to the successes of John Lasseter and company. Perhaps most insightful is his comparison of Disney’s Frozen with Pixar’s underrated Brave. The latter, he writes, is “fully committed to depicting a mother-daughter relationship without any make intrusion,” whereas Frozen is “more concerned with the nebulous concept of romantic, not sisterly, love.”

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Sections written by Jason Fry, illustrated by Kemp Remillard (DK Publishing)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Crosssections

DK’s Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Sections is the least-essential TFAbook of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wildly intriguing. The level of detail here — the auxiliary generator in Poe Dameron’s X-wing, the fuel tank in Rey’s speeder, the “relief pilot bunk” in the Millennium Falcon — is staggering. Plus, the artistry of illustrator Kemp Remillard makes every page frame-worthy.

Alien Next Door by Joey Spiotto (Titan Books)

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And now for something completely different. The premise of artist Joey Spiotto’s Alien Next Door is simple, smart, and very, very funny: What would our favorite Ripley-battling sci-fi monster look like when going to the beach, bowling, or taking a selfie? Filled with numerous in-jokes any fan of theAlien films will appreciate, Alien Next Door is a face-hugging treat.

Bonus: Novel Round-Up

The Girl in the Spiders Web

Those looking for two gripping novels with links to the world of cinema should check out David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Alfred A. Knopf) and Jo Nesbo’s Midnight Sun (Alfred A. Knopf). The former is the continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series and the story of its heroine, Lisbeth Salander. While fans of Larsson’s original trilogy may have been concerned with the idea of another author carrying on the series, it quickly becomes clear that Lagercrantz’s book is respectful and appropriately thrilling. Let’s hope we someday have the chance to see Rooney Mara in a big-screen adaptation of this story involving hacking the N.S.A. And Jo Nesbo, author of The Snowman (finally filming with Michael Fassbender as iconic detective Harry Hole), returns with another chilly crime drama called Midnight Sun. This tale of the former fixer for a Norwegian crime lord is a short (less than 300 pages), fast-moving blast of a novel.

Review: ‘Yosemite’ is a fine adaptation of two James Franco short stories

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“Yosemite” is a fine film playing for one week only at the Screening Room in Amherst. I gave it three stars in my Buffalo News review.

Say what you will about the ludicrously overextended James Franco, but never deny his ambition. What other young male actor would star in a re-creation of the sexually explicit deleted scenes from 1980’s “Cruising,” play himself in the “Veronica Mars” feature, and direct a movie about the creation of Tommy Wiseau’s epicly awful cult hit “The Room”?

Yes, only Franco has the chutzpah, for better or worse, to tackle such a head-spinningly diverse selection of projects. If his starring role in Hulu’s soon-to-debut Stephen King adaptation “11.22.63” is a shout, Gabrielle Demeestere’s intimate drama “Yosemite” must be termed a whisper.

Showing from Feb. 5 to 11 in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst), “Yosemite” is based on two short stories written by Franco and features the actor in a small role.

While not as emotionally resonant as 2014’s “Palo Alto,” the teen drama based on a collection of Franco’s short stories, “Yosemite” shares that film’s appreciation of the somber minutiae of adolescent life.

Set in 1985 Palo Alto, Calif., “Yosemite” is centered around a trio of fifth-graders, all in the same class, all deeply rooted in a fractured suburban existence. Hovering over the film is the hunt for a mountain lion that is on the prowl, and giving pause to every child and adult in the area.

We are introduced to Chris (Everett Meckler) on an overnight trip with his recovering alcoholic father (Franco) and younger brother. The relationship between child and adult feels suitably forced; clearly, there is a distance between Chris and his old man.

Joe (Alec Mansky) is a quiet, sullen comic book fan whose parents are no longer together after a family tragedy. He was once close with classmate Ted (Calum John), but now the two are at odds.

All three of the young leads are natural, convincing actors. Perhaps the most involving character of the bunch is Alec Mansky’s Joe, a boy clearly in search of guidance and friendship.

He finds it, to some degree, from Henry (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis and the talented lead of Gus Van Sant’s offbeat 2011 film “Restless”). This loner with a stack of comics encourages Joe to read the superhero tales aloud, and seems curiously concerned with his safety.

But like most relationships in the film, there is an undercurrent of danger. There is a definite lack of follow-through on several fronts, specifically the relationship between Henry and Joe. Is he a predator? Is his interest in Joe unhealthy? Demeestere never answers these questions, and that’s clearly intentional.

In fact, the interactions between the three fifth-graders and the adults are all fraught with tension. Even the seemingly normal relationship of Ted and his insomniac father, an early user of the Internet, is, to say the least, strange. (Pay close attention to the text on the computer screen.)

The minefields of youth are clearly of interest to Franco, and Demeestere does a fine job of showing just how difficult life is for all three kids. Even Ted, the most nondescript of the bunch, suffers the loss of a pet (possibly to the mountain lion).

For all its modest successes, “Yosemite” cannot help but feel sleight. Just 80 minutes long, the film always is intriguing, but does not lead anywhere profound. There is a spiritual undercurrent that is especially pronounced in its closing scenes, but like the Joe-Henry relationship, never quite pays off.

Still, Demeestere’s work here is impressive. This small-scale drama is visually arresting and worthy of contemplation, and shows her to be a filmmaker on the rise.

Just her first feature, “Yosemite” is a strange, involving, very quiet film, and whatever it lacks in theatrics it makes up for with mood. It is another unexpected foray for Franco, and while it may garner less press than something like the high-profile “11.22.63,” it deserves an audience.

Buffalo Film Seminars returns with ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Beau Travail

 

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It’s spring semester time, so the Buffalo Film Seminars is back. Here’s the preview I wrote this week for Buffalo.com.

The Buffalo Film Seminars can always be counted on for an eclectic lineup and a fascinating opener, and the latest installment of the series hosted by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian is no exception. Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” screens at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 26 at the Dipson Amherst Theatre (3500 Main St.).

The silent classic stars the inimitable Louise Brooks as an uninhibited young woman who undergoes a fast rise and grim fall. The 1928 film is pre-Production Code, meaning the level of raw sexuality and violence onscreen is eye-opening even for current audiences. It’s an ideal opening selection, and Jackson and Christian should have some fascinating discussion points.

The rest of the spring series includes a number of heavyweights — Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa — and, in Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” an absolute must-see. (The latter, an adaptation of Melville’s “Billy Budd” involving soldiers in the French Foreign Legion, is notoriously difficult to track down on DVD.)

Here is the rest of the lineup:

 
Feb. 2: “Rules of the Game” (directed by Jean Renoir, 1939)

Feb. 9: “Notorious” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

Feb. 16: “Pather Panchali” (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

Feb. 23: “The Producers” (Mel Brooks, 1967)

March 1: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (Sergio Leone, 1968)

March 8: “The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)

March 22: “Raging Bull” (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

March 29: “Ran” (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

April 5: “Malcolm X” (Spike Lee , 1992)

April 12: “Beau Travail” (Claire Denis, 1999)

April 19: “Waltz with Bashir” (Ari Folman, 2008)

April 26: “Amour” (Michael Haneke, 2012)

May 3: “The Fisher King” (Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Tickets are $9.50 for adults, $7.50 for students, and $7. They can be purchased at the theater box office or at dipsontheatres.com. For more information on the Buffalo Film Seminars, visit buffalofilmseminars.com.

‘Schobert’s selections’ for the Buffalo News

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You’re probably getting bored with my 2015 recaps (it’s almost February!), but here is one more. Each year, the Buffalo News asks me to ponder my five favorites from the films I reviewed for Buffalo.com/the News in the previous year. There is some crossover with my Film Stage list, but take a look, and if you haven’t seen these five, get on it.

(Note that when this ran in print, ‘Schobert’s selections” was used in the headline. I must admit, I found that pretty cool.)

My film reviewing year started with a nightmare (“Jupiter Ascending”) and ended with a disaster (the dull, pointless remake of “Point Break”). However, there was greatness in between.

The five films I highlight below rank among the year’s finest, and all count as bold, innovative, personal visions. Even lesser films from my list of reviews – “Creed,” “Crimson Peak,” “Everest,” “Irrational Man,” “The Assassin,” “’71,” even “Magic Mike XXL” – offered significant pleasures.

Heck, I even liked “Pan.”

Here are five of the year’s most memorable cinematic treats:

 
1. “Phoenix.” There are moments in this stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film that will, quite literally, take your breath away. Director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead, and to learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis, is a stunner. The film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene cements the greatness of Petzold’s achievement.

2. “Clouds of Sils Maria.” The mysterious, wondrous “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. You have never seen Stewart be as compelling, as enigmatic and as utterly relatable as she is here. And rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human.

3. “Breathe.” The directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence. It tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.

4. “Goodnight Mommy.” This Austrian horror-thriller is one of the most chilling films in recent memory, a fiercely compelling story of creepy, blonde-haired twins and the woman who may (or may not) be their mother. It repels and intrigues in equal measure, and there are moments in the film that make you gasp in astonishment. Featuring fascinating performances from its three leads, it is an off-kilter nightmare that dares you to not look away.

5. “What We Do in the Shadows.” An inspired, riotous mockumentary and future cult classic as sharply funny as any release this year, the film co-stars and was co-directed by “Flight of the Conchords” genius Jemaine Clement. Think vampire movies and mockumentaries have grown stale? “What We Do in the Shadows” will make you think otherwise.

My top 10 films of 2015: Carol, Phoenix, The Force Awakens and more

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It was a strong year in cinema, so strong, in fact, that I could not include many of my 2015 favorites on my top 15 list. Consider a few of the films that did not make the cut: The Duke of Burgundy, What We Do In the Shadows, ’71, While We’re Young, Eden, Paddington, Saint Laurent, It Follows, When Marnie Was There, Timbuktu, Love & Mercy, Brooklyn, Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Inside Out, Tangerine, Amy, The End of the Tour, Mistress America, Goodnight Mommy, Breathe, James White. (If I’d seen The Revenant in time, it’s possible it would have made my top 10. At the very least, it’d be in the top 15.)

Here’s what did make the cut — my top 10 list as submitted to The Film Stage, along with five honorable mentions. My top 15 films are followed by the write-ups I contributed to the site’s top 50 list: The Look of Silence, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Phoenix.

Individual Ballot:
Honorable Mention: Ex Machina, 45 Years, The Tribe, Straight Outta Compton, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
9. Anomalisa
8. Clouds of Sils Maria
7. Room
6. Son of Saul
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Look of Silence
3. Phoenix
2. Spotlight
1. Carol

Top 50 write-ups:
19. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Calling Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence the year’s finest documentary is not inaccurate; the film certainly deserves that crown. Yet it’s hard not to feel like such a classification does Silence a slight injustice. The film is, after all, an overwhelmingly emotional modern classic. Like Oppenheimer’s 2012 masterpiece The Act of Killing, this stunning follow-up features the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men discuss and even demonstrate how they killed. Killing was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but The Look of Silence is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother. He and the audience discover terrifying truths together. The result is extraordinarily upsetting and startlingly moving. – Christopher S.

8. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, the wondrous Clouds of Sils Maria finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. As the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart is more compelling, enigmatic and utterly relatable than ever before. Meanwhile, Binoche is typically enchanting as star Maria Enders. With its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s best film to date. At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where Clouds made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.” Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. – Christopher S.

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film Phoenix that will quite literally take your breath away. Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead and learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene. When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. Phoenix is one of 2015’s finest films and a gloriously complex conversation-starter. Its focus on the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but this tackles the concept with its own ingenuity, emotion, and verve. For stars Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf, Phoenix is a triumph. And for director and co-writer Petzold (here scripting alongside the late Harun Farocki), it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking. – Christopher S.

Review: ‘The Assassin’ will intoxicate fans of cinema

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I missed “The Assassin” at TIFF15, but I jumped at the chance to review it for Buffalo.com. Here is my three-star review.

There are moments during Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin” in which it seems reasonable to call the film one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous in cinema history. Some of these shots – two figures on a mountaintop, mist over a gray pool of water – deserve to be paused, printed and framed.

This is not hyperbole. Hou’s film earned him the best director prize at last May’s Cannes Film Festival over the likes of the already acclaimed and soon-to-be released “Son of Saul” and Todd Haynes’ “Carol.”

Did Hou deserve the honor? Hard to say, but watching “The Assassin,” it’s easy to see why the Cannes jury flipped for the latest effort from the director of 2007’s lovely“Flight of the Red Balloon.”

The director’s fellow visual master Wong Kar-wai went martial arts with 2013’s stunner “The Grandmaster,” but Hou’s first film to dabble in that genre is a much different affair. The slow-paced “Assassin” will simply not work for filmgoers anticipating unrelenting, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-style action.

The setting is ninth century China, the era of China’s Tang Dynasty. It is a time of sudden, unpredictable violence and rigidly defined social structure. Perhaps that is why the assassin of the film’s title is such an intriguing, unpredictable figure.

This mysterious individual is named Nie Yinniang, and she is well played by Shu Qi, star of Hou’s 2001 treat “Millenium Mambo.” As a 10-year-old, this daughter of a prominent general was taken by a nun and trained to kill without mercy.

Years later, Yinniang emerges from exile on the nun’s orders, tasked with returning to the land of her birth to murder her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the governor of the powerful Weibo province – and the man she was once set to marry.

Intriguingly, it is widely known that Yinniang has returned, and the sight of her lurking in the shadows, while causing some discomfort, is seemingly greeted with acceptance. This makes for a complex and often hard to follow story, one filled with long pauses and furtive glances. It is no exaggeration to call the film, at times, confusing.

Quite honestly, the film’s plot feels like an excuse for the visuals – but my goodness. The visuals. Indeed, enjoying the film requires a complete immersion into the ravishing scenery and beguiling setting.

Really, Hou’s visual mastery cannot be overstated. Even if the film’s languid pacing and head-scratching plot confound, it is impossible to turn away.

Also effective is the character of Yinniang. Unlike the governors, their families and their protectors, she is free to travel in the shadows, strike quickly and disappear again. It’s refreshing to see a female – in ninth century China, no less – who is dependent on no one.

In addition, despite the difficulties of the story, there are lines of dialogue in the Hou co-authored screenplay that linger in one’s memory. “Your mind is still hostage to human sentiment” is one. But the dialogue that most startled me with its somber simplicity comes from Tian Ji’an: “When I was 10 I had a serious fever. The doctors were no help. A small coffin was prepared.”

Hou is undoubtedly a visionary. While this Taiwanese master has made a film that will surely alienate audiences, those with a deep appreciation for cinema will find the world of “The Assassin” to be intoxicating.

Hope you caught ‘The Look of Silence’ …

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“The Look of Silence” is, unquestionably, one of 2015’s best. My friends at Cultivate Cinema Circle brought it to town for one-night only, so I hope you were there! Here is the preview I wrote for Buffalo.com.

The fall season of Cultivate Cinema, the cinephile-friendly screening series that began in June, ends with three great films over the next few weeks. The first is a 2015 release, but make no mistake, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Look of Silence” qualifies as a modern classic. It screens at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 24 in the North Park Theatre.

This is the companion film to “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary that featured the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men — many of whom are still in power — discussed and even demonstrated how they killed.

“Art” was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but “The Look of Silence” is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother.

As Cultivate director Jordan Smith puts it, “Watching ‘The Look of Silence’ is to bear witness to Indonesia’s past, to internalize the struggles of living with the horrors of previous generations, and in spite of it all, facing it with heart-wrenching, unfathomable courage.”

Tickets for “The Look of Silence” are $7 at the door, or $8 presale at northparktheatre.org.

Far lighter are the final two entries in Cultivate’s fall season, a free Orson Welles double feature on Dec. 5 in the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at the Buffalo Central Library. “The Lady From Shanghai” is shown at 1 p.m., followed by “Touch of Evil” at 3 p.m.

Visit cultivatecinemacircle.com for more information.

Review: With ‘Breathe,’ the great Mélanie Laurent directs a wonderful film

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I have adored actress Mélanie Laurent for years now, and was intrigued by the idea of her moving behind the camera. “Breathe” ranks among her finest achievements; I gave it 3 1/2 stars in the Buffalo News.

“Breathe,” the directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent, is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence.

Laurent is best known in North America for her role as revenge-seeking Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist WWII extravaganza “Inglourious Basterds.” It was the film’s finest performance, and one that deserved award consideration. She also has appeared in films such as “Beginners,” “Now You See Me” and the 2009 French hit “Le Concert.” (She even released a fine album in 2011.)

“Breathe” tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.

Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a quiet, thoughtful teen who forms a strong friendship with a girl who might be considered her opposite. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is outspoken and impulsive, a new kid in town with a mysterious, slightly questionable past.

This air of mystery makes Sarah seem slightly exotic, and to Charlie, wondrously fresh. With Charlie’s parents on the verge of splitting up, the arrival of this new friend could not seem better.

However, a few comments hint at a fracturing relationship between the two, and after Sarah joins Charlie on a family trip, things take a dark turn. Soon, Sarah is leading an effort at school to harass Charlie, who grows increasingly somber and despondent.

The scenes of Charlie’s treatment at school are breathtakingly sad, an indictment of bullying and the power of calculated persecution. Laurent and her young stars make it all believable and even understandable. Only with a melodramatic turn in the final few minutes does “Breathe” make a wrong turn.

Despite that conclusion, the film is both harsh and heartbreaking, a story of teenage wildlife as strong as the recent French classic “Blue is the Warmest Colour.”

 

Photo courtesy of Film Movement

 

Review: Alison Brie shines in ‘Sleeping With Other People’

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Can one actor make a movie worth watching? In the case of Alison Brie, absolutely. The film “Sleeping With Other People” has some great moments throughout, but it is Brie who steals the show. I gave it three stars in the Buffalo News.

“Sleeping With Other People” is a romantic comedy for people who generally dislike romantic comedies. This very funny, tart-tongued film does not quite break from the conventional rom-com formula. But with a killer lead pairing – former “Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis and “Community”/“Mad Men” star Alison Brie – and a nicely naughty script, “Sleeping” qualifies as a modest success.

The time is certainly right for a comedy with two delightfully realistic protagonists, the type who make mistakes constantly, joke about HPV and chlamydia, and somehow can’t seem to figure out why they’re perennially dating (or sleeping with) the wrong people.

Director Leslye Headland’s second feature (after the 2012 Kirsten Dunst comedy “Bachelorette”) starts in the early 2000s, as college students Jake (Sudeikis) and Lainey (Brie) meet-kinda-cute, and realize they have something major in common: They are still virgins.

A nicely fumbling first sexual experience follows, and soon we skip to the present day, in which both characters have gone their separate ways. Single Jake is a likable womanizer whose married-with-children business partner Xander is in a very different place. (Xander calls his friend “the biggest slut in the world.”)

Lainey is a serial cheater whose most recent boyfriend (a very funny Adam Brody) doesn’t take the news of her outside dalliances very well. She also is struggling with the news that her old boyfriend, a doctor played by Adam Scott with a weasel mustache, is soon to be married.

Jake and Lainey run into each other outside of a sex addiction meeting – of course – and slowly begin to realize they have too much in common not to be great friends. They quickly become confidants for each other, all while fighting the obvious attraction they (still) have for each other.

These characters, especially Lainey, are prone to utterly foolish feelings and decisions, and while that can be annoying for the viewer (it’s hard to tell why she is so hung up on Scott’s off-putting character), it lends a feeling of real-life silliness to the proceedings. Real people have these sometimes inexplicable problems, and that means Headland’s film often takes a sledgehammer to rom-com cliché.

That’s why it’s a tad surprising the film ends on the type of happy note that’s not unlike all manner of Hollywood romantic comedy. It is perhaps an earned ending, yet something as acidic as the rest might have better fit the characters.

Sudeikis is more appealing here than he has ever been on screen. He has not distinguished himself much outside of “SNL,” whether the films have been hits (“We’re the Millers,” “Horrible Bosses”) or flops (the underrated “Hall Pass”).

The real star of “Sleeping With Other People,” however, is Brie. She was a consistent highlight on “Community” and made the most of her small role on “Mad Men.”

On the big screen, however, she has been wasted in such tripe as the Will Ferrell disaster “Get Hard.” It took a writer-director as canny as Headland to show how adorably off-kilter and wildly funny Brie can be as an actor. It won’t linger long in your consciousness, but for its 90 minutes, “Sleeping With Other People” is an entertaining anti-rom-com. You’ll never look at an empty bottle of green tea the same way again.