’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)