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After the Storm

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda




      Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a private detective, struggles to make ends meet while dealing with a gambling addiction. His passion is for writing, but it's been over a decade since he published his last award-winning novel. Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), his young son, lives with Ryota's ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), who tell Ryota that she won't let him see Shingo if he can't pay his required child support payment in full by 5 PM that day. A typhoon causes all three of them to stay the night at the apartment of Ryota's mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), who want Kyoko and Ryota to end up back together.

      After the Storm, at its core, is about a dysfunctional family trying to regain functionality while coming to terms with their human flaws. The screenplay by writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda brings each character to life in a way that makes you forget that you're watching a narrative film; it feels more like a documentary because everything seems so true-to-life. Just like with Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son, he prefers nuance and understatement over melodrama. Everything is gentle here----even the performances and the comic relief. Kudos to Koreeda for trusting the audience's patience, intelligence and emotions like he always does.

      You can watch After the Storm while judging the character of Ryota or by just experiencing what he goes through without judging him and still be emotionally engrossed by the film either way. Ryota seems like he's far from a perfect husband, but he's not a bad person, so don't be so quick to judge him. Just like any sane human being, he wants to be a better husband, parent and person which are tasks that are easier said than done. Ryoko's mother looks at the optimistic side by believing that Kyoko should have given Ryota more chances before divorcing him. She might seem initially naive, that's what she was led to believe based on how she herself was raised as a child, so it would make sense that she would look at the bright side.

      Koreeda grasps that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. Every detail plays its part in the film---i.e., the exact kind of snack that Ryota remembers eating while taking shelter from a typhoon during his childhood. The typhoon that takes place could be seen as a spectacle, but the film's true spectacle is actually lies beneath the humanism: the innate struggles (a different kind of storm) of everyone to try their best to maximize their happiness and tranquility. Concurrently, the typhoon can be seen as a metaphor that symbolizes the family's emotional turmoil. As you can probably observe by now, After the Storm feels as rich and complex as a novel is with its fully-drawn characters and relationships that are relatable. Each character changes in a way by the end of the film, but their character arcs feels authentic, unlike the contrived arc of Wilson in the upcoming dysfunctional family drama Wilson. At a running time of 117 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, After the Storm is warm, wise, nuanced and profoundly moving. It would make for an interesting double feature with Ordinary People, The 400 Blows, and Tokyo Sonata.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Film Movement.
Opens March 17th, 2017 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center.

Year by the Sea

Directed by Alexander Janko




      Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) decides to rent a house along the beach on Cape Cod after her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), relocates to Kansas because of work and her two adult children finally move out of house. She hopes to begin writing again while finding peace of mind far away from her family. John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a fisherman, befriends her and agrees to hire her, temporarily, at his local fish market. When she meets Joan Erikson (Celia Imre), who's grieving the loss of her husband, psychologist Erik Erikson, Joan Anderson's quest to find true happiness and to get to know herself officially begins.

      Based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, Year by the Sea is an enchanting, warm, wise and profoundly moving film brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's rare to find these days in American films. Writer/director Alexander Janko finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Many scenes feel relatable and ring true. Janko also knows how to introduce characters in a way that's compelling, i.e. how Joan Anderson meets Joan Erikson in a dream-like sequence on the foggy shores of Cape Cod. Right away you're able to grasp how witty and wise Erikson is. Janko handles the many scenes of Anderson attaining enlightenment gracefully without veering into preachiness. He also avoids turning the emotionally resonant scenes into sappiness.

      Anyone who calls Year by the Sea conventional or formulaic isn't paying close enough attention to the many little surprises that come along, including a revelation about Joan Anderson's literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), and how Anderson doesn't yield to the temptations of cheating on her husband, Robin, even though she could have if she wanted to. The way that she helps a waitress, Luce (Monique Curnen), to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husbands speaks volumes about how kind, selfless and considerate she is as a human being. Janko includes other telling details about her Anderson's character like when her husband suddenly laughs at something that he thought about. Instead of acting offended or shocked by saying "Stop laughing!", she asks him, with genuine compassion and a healthy dose of curiosity, "What's so funny?" Small, beautiful scene like that are part of what makes Year by the Sea such a treasure behold.

      The scenery of Cape Cod becomes a character in itself with many awe-inspiring shots that would be best experienced on the big screen. The well-chosen music also helps to enrich the film. Moreover, each of the supporting characters feels lived-in, complex and interesting enough to even be turned into a protagonist. Although Anderson's husband does have flaws, he's far from a villain and has many redeeming qualities. The same can be said for Luce's abusive husband (Tyler Haines). Even the homeless man who shows up at the fish market to receive free food from John has an interesting backstory about how he became homeless. Janko clearly understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. He also finds the right balance between light and dark elements---yes, many scenes are uplifting, but there's also some gentle, underlying sadness and tragedy lurking beneath the surface. Just like life itself, it would be difficult and unfair to lump Year by the Sea into a genre.

      The talented Karen Allen anchors Year By the Sea with her radiance. She gives the best performance of her career, and Janko allows for her shine thanks to the beautifully-written screenplay. It's also quite refreshing for a modern film to have such a complex role for an actress, and to watch a film that can't be turned into a video game or that doesn't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. In a less sensitively-written film, the character of Joan Anderson would have had no inner life; in Year By the Sea you can grasp her inner life from start to finish which makes the film all the more exceptional, poignant and unforgettable. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which breezes by like an hour, Year by the Sea is a life-affirming, breathtaking, and inspirational film that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's blockbusters. What a triumph! It would make for a great double feature with Under the Tuscan Sun, 45 Years and Muriel's Wedding.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Real Women Make Waves.
Opens Friday at select theaters in Florida.

Toni Erdmann

Directed by Maren Ade




      Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced, retired piano teacher, feels lonely after his dog dies. His estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), works long hours for a consulting firm as a business consultant. He decides to visit her out of the blue and follow her to work to try to rekindle their father-daughter relationship through a series of pranks where he dons a wig and false teeth as "Toni Erdmann."

      To merely describe the plot of Toni Erdmann wouldn't do it any justice. Like many great films, it can't be summarized adequately with words nor can it fit into a genre. On the one hand, it's also a comedy with screwball, witty and absurd humor, some of which is quite bold---please be warned, though: you will never look at a petit four the same way ever again. On the other hand, it's a tragedy with two wounded, lonely souls who come together in spite of their many differences while discovering and learning to love themselves as well as each other. Comedy, after all, is almost always rooted in tragedy. Fortunately, writer/director Maren Ade hits just the right notes as she blends comedy and drama with some depth lurking beneath the surface to allow you to ponder larger issues like the meaning of happiness, family, love and forgiveness. In other words, she grounds the film in humanism, a priceless, truly special effect.

      The character of Winfried isn't easy to like because he seems creepy, selfish, annoying and emotionally needy at first, but as the film progresses he becomes somewhat endearing in spite of his seemingly childish behavior. He fundamentally lover her although perhaps he doesn't quite know how to express his love in the usual ways. One wonders what the relationship was like with his own parents. There's much more to him than meets the eye which makes him all the more interesting as a character. Ines is also complex: she seems cold and overworked with a stiff upper lip, but, with the help of her father, she gradually loosens up and starts to confront her buried emotions. The fact that Ines and Winfried come to life is a testament to the raw and convincingly moving performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek. Both of them help to make their characters actually feel like they're father and daughter even when they don't speak to one another. Their greatest triumph, though, is that they manage to find the emotional truths of their characters.

      The post profound, surprising scene in the film is when Ines sings Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" as her father plays the piano. Pay close attention to the song's lyrics because they speak volumes about Ines' emotional breakthrough. That scene will probably be remembered the most, but there are other smaller, subtler, quieter scenes that also have leave a powerful emotional impact. Kudos to Maren Ade for trusting the audience's intelligence as well as something that's underrated this days and ultimately rewarding: patience. The understated ending works beautifully and leaves enough room for interpretation. Anyone who dares to call Toni Erdmann shallow either wasn't paying close enough attention to the film and/or is shallow themselves. Whether you see it as a comedy grounded in tragedy or a tragedy grounded in comedy, Toni Erdmann is a profound, heartfelt and outrageously funny emotional journey. It's one of the best films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Elle

Directed by Paul Verhoeven




      Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, a divorced woman who runs a video game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). After she gets brutally raped at home, she decides to take matters into her own hands and try to catch her rapist instead of seeking help from the police. Her familial relationships are quite dysfunctional. She's jealous of ex-husband, Richard Leblanc (Charles Berling), when she learns that he has found a much younger lover, Hélène (Vimala Pons), and she dislikes Josie (Alice Isaaz), the fiancee of her son, Vincent's (Jonas Bloquet). She has no shame when it comes to having an affair with her best friend's husband, Robert (Christian Berkel).

      Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, Elle is a character-driven psychological thriller that goes into unexpectedly twisted directions more often than not. Michèle may not be particularly likable as a character because of some of the choices that she makes and her personality, but it's precisely those flaws that make her all the more interesting as a character. She's given a backstory involving something traumatic from her childhood which won't be spoiled here. That trauma has shaped her current mental state and makes her a complex human being---she's not exactly an easy nut to crack. The darker that Elle becomes, the more captivating and even somewhat gripping it becomes.

      Director Paul Verhoeven ought to feel very lucky to have Isabbelle Huppert as his lead because she's just the right actress for the role. This is her best role since The Piano Teacher. She tackles Michèle's strength as well as her innate fragility concurrently. Perceptive audience members will be able to grasp the battles with her mental scars which are far more traumatic than physical scars. in other words, Huppert's impeccable acting skills help to provide a window, albeit a small one, into Michèle's head. Although you probably would not want to spend time around Michèle in person, she's nonetheless a truly fascinating character that's complex enough to be open to interpretation. Bravo to Verhoeven and screenwriter David for trusting the audience's intelligence and thereby turning Elle into a smart, sophisticated and riveting psychological thriller for adults.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center.
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