The power of Marilyn—and the Falls: An excerpt from Buffalo Spree’s April issue

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One of the many faces on the cover of Buffalo Spree’s film issue is Marilyn Monroe, who famously starred in 1953’s Niagara. As I write in the issue (and below), it’s an odd picture, but certainly an interesting one.

“Marilyn Monroe and Niagara—a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” So screamed the poster for 1953’s Niagara, an enjoyably stodgy film that is, of course, particularly captivating to Western New Yorkers. This Technicolor thriller—dig that red satin dress!—was shot in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and watching it today one is touched by its aesthetic beauty, its importance in cinema history, and its sheer oddness.

This is a stodgy, rather silly little thing redeemed by Monroe’s smoldering performance. In her book The Marilyn Scandal, author Sandra Shevey refers to “the scenes with her lover (filmed in long shot) of their rendezvous in the bowels of the falls—those amazingly torrential downpourings as backdrops—are some of the most erotic scenes ever filmed. … It was in Niagara that Monroe really discovered where she was going and how to get there.”

It is downright shocking how little screentime Monroe actually has; the star of the movie is really the soon-to-be Mrs. Howard Hughes, Jean Peters. But it is Marilyn who fascinates, whether she is staring down her wet-blanket husband (Joseph Cotton) or contemplating how to cross back into the States. This era, of course, is when Niagara Falls was really Niagara Falls, “Wonder of the World.” This combination, of the Falls and Marilyn, still intrigues. Even the suite the actress stayed in, room 801 at the Crowne Plaza, draws curious visitors.

It is entirely possible that no film shot in or near Buffalo has had a greater impact. It might not be very, well, good, but there is no doubting Niagara’s significance.

‘Human Capital’ is imperfect, but worth a rental

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“Human Capital” is one of many interesting foreign films to have made a brief stop in Buffalo so far this year. As my Buffalo News review explains, this is not a great movie, but certainly one worth watching. Note an error with the review, however. I submitted a review with a 2.5 star grade, but it is listed here as 3.5. Oh well.

Two families and a bicyclist meet with combustible results in “Human Capital,” a sharp, ambitiously staged drama about life in modern, post-Berlusconi Italy. “Everything is collapsing,” says one character after financial forecasts prove disastrously incorrect. That collapse, director Paolo Virzi demonstrates, is not just monetary, but personal, emotional and even physical.

Like recent Italian cinema successes “The Great Beauty” and “Reality,” Virzi’s film is focused on the severe clash between the haves, the have-nots, and those stuck in the middle, aching to get ahead.

Dino Ossola is in the latter category, a likable if slightly buffoonish sort whose daughter Serena is dating the son of a wealthy hedge fund kingpin. Dino (played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio who looks like a cross between Eric Roberts and Bob Seger) sees an opportunity to get in with Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni). Giovanni can tell: “You want to buy into our fund,” he says with the air of a man who is used to such requests.

It is quickly clear that Dino is in over his head, but bigger problems develop. When a waiter on his bicycle is struck by a passing SUV on the night before Christmas Eve, Dino’s daughter and Giovanni’s son are suspects.

This news arrives at a particularly bad time for Carla Bernaschi (the wondrous, wounded Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a seemingly bored wife and mother attempting to save a small theater until her husband announces that he must sell it.

“Human Capital” buzzes along nicely for the first hour, but makes a crucial error in turning its focus to Serena. It is not the fault of actress Matilde Gioli that Serena is so dull – we can blame director and co-writer Virzi – but no matter who is responsible, the Serena section causes the film to screech to a halt.

Placement also is an issue. The stories of Dino and Carla are so involving that perhaps whoever followed would seem rote by comparison. But Serena’s tale, and the love story at its center, seems particularly weak. Also rather pedestrian is the final explanation of who is responsible for causing the accident.

Yet for the most part, “Human Capital” is compelling cinema. And while Italy’s submission to the Academy Awards failed to secure a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it is a smarter, more ambitious production than most adult fare being burped out in Hollywood.

Virzi is known for his Italian comedies, but “Human Capital” is a dark, somber piece. Except for a few issues (sorry, Serena), he has created a unique, timely drama. And “50 Shades of Grey” devotees should note that Virzi also stages one of the more erotic love scenes in recent memory.

The cast is uniformly strong, but it is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi who truly impresses. Her Carla is a vulnerable woman stuck in a powerless position, and every moment she is on screen is riveting.

It is hard to quibble with the decision to divide “Human Capital” into character-focused chapters, but the viewer cannot help but wonder if a film centered on Carla alone might have proven even more successful.

With a bit more focus, “Capital” could have gone down as another modern Italian cinema great. Even so, it’s close, and that is an impressive feat.

’71, Shadows, and It Follows: Three must-see indies now playing

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It has been a rather weak year to date for large-scale Hollywood films, but a pretty stellar one for indies. Three of the latter recently opened in Buffalo, and all qualify as must-sees.

71 is director Yann Demange’s intense, exhilarating tale of a British soldier separated from his unit in bloody, early-’70s Belfast. It features a fine performance from the much-buzzed-about Jack O’Connell.

As I said in my review:

“’71 should erase any lingering doubts about whether the hype was justified. As young British soldier Gary Hook, O’Connell is heartbreakingly vulnerable, memorably fierce, and altogether unforgettable.

“So is the film. North American audiences have seen numerous films on the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, many of them very, very good. But 71 is a different kind of portrait. This is street-level cinema, and interestingly, takes an almost apolitical stance.”

Far less bleak is What We Do in the Shadows, an inspired, riotous mockumentary about vampires in New Zealand.

From my review:

“Shadows stars and is directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. While the latter might be new to American audiences, Clement is one of the two geniuses better known as musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.

“Those who love the Conchords’ music and HBO series have an idea what to expect from What We Do in the Shadows. This is above all a comedy, but one fueled with intelligence and even pathos.”

Lastly, the horror film It Follows is an imperfect but very scary film from director David Robert Mitchell. It grabs you from the first gruesome minute, and its first half, especially, is as memorable as any recent horror flick. The film does not quite maintain this level of quality, and peters out a bit before finishing strong.

But overall, this clear STD metaphor is a stunner, a film that plays with horror tropes but finds new ways to startle.

‘Song of the Sea’ was a deserving Oscar nominee

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My post on “Song of the Sea” playing at Buffalo’s North Park Theatre on March 14 and 15 did not run on Buffalo.com, sadly. But the film is now available for rental, and highly recommended. Here is my slightly revised post.

Disney’s “Big Hero 6” was the somewhat surprising winner of this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, and “Hero” is not an entirely unworthy choice. But anyone who has seen Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” or the Irish animated film “Song of the Sea” was likely disappointed that neither of these under-the-radar gems proved victorious.

“Sea” is a wonderful, moving film from director Tomm Moore, who previously helmed the Oscar nominated “Secret of Kelis.” He crafts a lovely modern-day retelling of myth of the “selkie,” one with gorgeous artwork and a truly involving story.

Brendan Gleeson voices the sad-eyed father of young Ben and Saoirse, a family unit of three still dealing with the loss of their wife and mother. Saoirse is no ordinary girl, and as “Sea” develops, we learn her special link to her late mother, and how it can unlock a world of secrets.

I’d call “Song of the Sea” a must-see for families and animation lovers.

Coming soon! The film issue of Buffalo Spree and ‘Buffalo ’66’ at the North Park

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I had the honor of guest-editing the April 2015 “film issue” of Buffalo Spree, and to tie in with the issue, Spree is presenting a special screening of Vincent Gallo’s dark masterpiece “Buffalo ’66” at the North Park Theatre on April 2.

I helped put the screening together, so I cannot wait. I also cannot wait for everyone to see the film issue … More to come on this soon! In the meantime, click here for more info on the screening.

David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’ is equally intriguing, repelling

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David Cronenberg has long been one of my favorite directors, so having the chance to review his latest film for the Buffalo News was a thrill. I gave it 3 1/2 stars.

David Cronenberg does Hollywood as only he can in “Maps to the Stars,” a pitch-black, ultra-violent, darkly comic satire dripping with acid. It’s a Hollywood horror story designed to equally intrigue and repel.

“Maps” makes tinseltown satires like Robert Altman’s “The Player” (brilliant) and David Mamet’s “State and Main” (not so brilliant) seem like “Singin’ in the Rain” by comparison. Its closest cousin is probably David Lynch’s masterful “Mulholland Drive,” a frightening experience similarly obsessed with the crossover between celebrity dreams and showbiz nightmares.

Fans of Cronenberg entries like “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers” and “Crash” will find much to chew on here. “Maps to the Stars” is one of his most sickly compelling films, but certainly not easily digestible as the more thematically straightforward likes of “The Fly” or “Eastern Promises.”

“Sickly compelling” describes virtually every character, especially post-rehab teen idol Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), an entitled monster with a doting mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), and a well-known television psychologist father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack).

One of Weiss’ clients is aging movie star Havana Segrand (a simultaneously fragile and combustible Julianne Moore), still dealing with the abuses inflicted upon her by her late mother, also an actress. Havana is haunted – literally – by a younger version of her mother.

Into this strange milieu enters Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a mousey, scarred young woman with an unhealthy obsession with the rich and famous, and, specifically, Benjie. Agatha forms a connection with Jerome (a nicely understated Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and struggling actor.

It becomes clear that Agatha has a connection with the Weiss family, and also that she is utterly unhinged. But so is Benjie. And so is Stafford Weiss. And so are Cristina and Havana, and almost every character in the film minus Jerome.

Agatha is hired as Havana’s personal assistant, thanks to an intro from Carrie Fisher (humorously playing herself), and between picking up Havana’s pills and to her duties, begins to inject herself into Benjie’s sphere.

The deeper Agatha goes, the more things detonate, leading to a series of bloody, emotionally piercing events. In Cronenberg’s Hollywood, nothing ends well, and any victories arrive only as a result of someone else’s misfortune.

The character who most embodies the film’s star-eat-star aesthetic is feverishly narcissistic young Benjie, the most memorable movie brat to saunter on screen in some time. Actor Evan Bird makes this Justin Bieber-by-way-of-“American Psycho” character Patrick Bateman believably damaged, and even vulnerable.

Wasikowska excels at vulnerability, and she, too, has created a character that feels completely original. Cusack has his best role in years, and nails it in spite of the character’s rather clichéd occupation. (Think Dr. Phil meets Tony Robbins.)

But newly crowned Oscar winner Moore steals the picture. Her performance is appropriately over-the-top, and devilishly wise. This is an individual who celebrates the death of a rival’s child, delights in seduction, and teeters on the precipice of insanity.

If it all sounds a bit silly and sadistic, it is. And a few moments simply don’t connect. But the genius of Cronenberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed novelist) Bruce Wagner is that it almost is always car-crash watchable and even, at times, relatable. To Canada’s greatest filmmaker, Hollywood is lined with corpses and inundated with the ghosts of past sins (and sinners), and those of us on the outside can only gawk.

“Maps to the Stars” is another fascinating entry in Cronenberg’s ever-unpredictable career. In recent years, the Canadian auteur has helmed films about a young billionaire forever lodged in his limo (“Cosmopolis”) and the friendship-rivalry between Freud and Jung (“A Dangerous Method”), seen a handsome exhibition focused on his work at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, and written his first novel (“Consumed”).

His latest film is not a Cronenberg classic, but it is a very solid addition to his résumé. And in Benjie and Havana, we have characters as memorably icky on the inside as Seth Brundle of “The Fly” is on the outside.

How did I do with my Oscar picks? Pretty darn good, actually

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I made some last-second Oscar picks about an hour before the ceremony, and, well, I’m quite pleased with my performance. I went 17 of 24, probably one of my best results ever.

Here are my picks, followed by the result.

Best Picture
My pick: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, and James W. Skotchdopole
CORRECT

Best Directing
My pick: Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
CORRECT

Best Actor
My pick: Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything as Stephen Hawkin
CORRECT

Best Actress
My pick: Julianne Moore – Still Alice as Dr. Alice Howland
CORRECT

Best Supporting Actor
My pick: J. K. Simmons – Whiplash as Terence Fletcher
CORRECT

Best Supporting Actress
My pick: Patricia Arquette – Boyhood as Olivia Evans
CORRECT

Best Original Screenplay
My pick: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness
INCORRECT (Winner: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo)

Best Adapted Screenplay
My pick: The Imitation Game – Graham Moore from Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
CORRECT

Best Animated Feature Film
My pick: How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
INCORRECT (Winner: Big Hero 6 – Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli

Best Foreign Language Film
My pick: Ida (Poland) in Polish – Paweł Pawlikowski
CORRECT

Best Documentary – Feature
My pick: Citizenfour – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutsky
CORRECT

Best Documentary – Short Subject
My pick: Our Curse – Tomasz Śliwiński and Maciej Ślesicki
INCORRECT (Winner: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 – Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry)

Best Live Action Short Film
My pick: The Phone Call – Mat Kirkby and James Lucas
CORRECT

Best Animated Short Film
My pick: The Bigger Picture – Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
INCORRECT (Winner: Feast – Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed)

Best Original Score
My pick:The Theory of Everything – Jóhann Jóhannsson
INCORRECT (Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat)

Best Original Song
My pick: “Glory” from Selma – Music and Lyric by John Legend and Common
CORRECT

Best Sound Editing
My pick: American Sniper – Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
CORRECT

Best Sound Mixing
My pick: Whiplash – Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley
CORRECT

Best Production Design
My pick: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration)
CORRECT

Best Cinematography
My pick: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Emmanuel Lubezki
CORRECT

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
My pick: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
CORRECT

Best Costume Design
My pick: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Milena Canonero
CORRECT

Best Film Editing
My pick: American Sniper – Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
INCORRECT (Winner: Whiplash – Tom Cross)

Best Visual Effects
My pick: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
INCORRECT (Winner: Interstellar – Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher)

Four stars for ‘Two Days, One Night’

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Regular readers know how I feel about “Two Days, One Night,” but I was excited to have the opportunity to review for the Buffalo News. I gave it four stars.

Sandra is in the midst of a predicament far beyond her control. The young Belgian wife and mother suffered a nervous breakdown that led to time away from her factory job.

She has recovered, and is prepared to return to work. But things have changed during her time off. Management found that employees were able to cover for her absence, and eventually came up with a proposal, one with great ramifications for Sandra, her family and her 16 factory co-workers: In exchange for Sandra’s dismissal, the employee will receive a bonus of 1,000 euros. If they turn down the bonus, Sandra can keep her job. Quid pro quo.

Sandra must find a way to convince her co-workers – all in need of the bonus money – to forego that extra financial help so she can remain employed and support her family. Sandra has one weekend to do so.

That is the setup for “Two Days, One Night,” the latest film from Belgian auteurs Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. It is a simple premise, really, but one anchored in the now.

Above all else, it features the finest performance of 2014, from the great Marion Cotillard. The result is a stunning, vivid, important film that ranks among the Dardennes’ best, and last year’s strongest.

With her supportive husband in tow, Sandra’s journey takes her from co-worker to co-worker, the same quest always in mind. Some are quickly on board – one breaks down in tears, remembering a time Sandra covered for his job error. Some react violently, including a hot-headed 20-something who angrily goes against his father, a co-worker in support of Sandra’s plan.

Along the way, we see that everyone is in pain over the vote, and none of the employees can truly be called cruel.

The Dardennes succeed in making Sandra’s dilemma the audience’s dilemma. We feel for her, and see the pain in her eyes. She does not want to impose upon her co-workers, nor do we want her to. But what choice does she have?

The Dardennes ask us, what choice do the co-workers have? Almost all of them have families. Some are working extra jobs to make ends meet. Others simply know the difference the money would make in their lives. What do they owe Sandra? What does she owe them?

“Put yourself in my shoes,” says one of Sandra’s co-workers. That statement captures the complexity of the situation, and it is this complexity that makes “Two Days, One Night” such a compelling journey.

“Two Days” ends in a vote, but the scenes that follow the vote are the film’s most impressive. They involve an idea that turns the tables, and to some degree, puts Sandra in control. Her decision tells us everything we need to know about who she is, and her feelings for others.

Cotillard received a Best Actress nomination, and while she is unlikely to win, it is not hyperbole to say this subtle performance towers over the other acting nominees – male or female. Cotillard skillfully underplays, avoiding the overemotional, showy theatrics that often plague such dramas.

This is her best work, and considering the actress’ résumé – her Oscar-winning role in “La Vie En Rose,” “Nine,” “Rust and Bone” and the unjustly ignored “The Immigrant” – that says a lot.

For Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the film represents another high. It is perhaps their most accessible film and stands proudly alongside such masterpieces as “La Promesse,” “Rosetta,” “L’Enfant,” and “The Kid With a Bike.”

“Two Days” takes place in Belgium, but the issues – the sins of corporate management, the ongoing struggles of blue-collar workers, the role of women in the workplace, the inherent power of solidarity – are just as vital in North America.

This simple premise involving one woman’s quest to keep her job says so much about our world. That’s a testament to the skills of the Dardennes and Cotillard, and to the power of cinema.

This weekend: ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ at the North Park

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Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-nominated “Tale of Princess Kaguya” has finally made it to Buffalo, and it was worth the wait. Here is my brief take on the film, for Buffalo.com.

The sight of the Studio Ghibli logo, featuring rotund Totoro from studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” is as reassuring to cinephiles as the Beatles’ Apple logo is to music geeks. It assures the viewer that the animated film to follow will be marked by ambition and beauty.

Happily, in recent years, the Japanese studio’s works have grown increasingly popular, as evidenced by the North Park Theatre’s successful “Studio Ghibli chalking contest,” which saw chalk-drawn Totoros lining Hertel.

One of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature, Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” is the next weekend matinee at the North Park. The (recommended) subtitled version screens at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, and the English-dubbed version screens at 11:30 a.m. Sunday.

“Princess Kaguya” is exquisite. Directed by Isao Takahata and based on the folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” it is the moving story of a girl found inside a stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife. She grows into a beautiful but somber young woman romantically pursued by five nobles.

It is an often funny, warm story, but it also is one touched by sadness. Like Studio Ghibli’s finest films, there is a melancholy air to the proceedings, and a complexity not often found in animated features.

This is an animated masterpiece, and a film not to be missed. Note that the dubbed version features the voices of Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen and James Marsden, among others. (I have only seen the subtitled version, which I would call the preferable choice.) The film is rated PG for thematic elements and some violent moments; I would call it appropriate for most preteens. For more info, visit www.northparktheatre.org.