Films I watched, December 2015


Last Shift 2015 Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
As others have said, predictable in places, but a great example of doing a lot with very little: one location, bright lighting, very small amount of cast members. Great to have in rookie cop Jessica a female protagonist who is strong and police trained, yet also unnerved as the night goes on. Less interesting are jump scares set up for us, not for the character, like when Jessica leaves an empty room, not noticing there are ghosts there for a few moments. Makes less sense the more you think about it, but smart enough.


Love and Mercy 2015 Directed by Bill Pohlad
The scenes recreating the recording sessions for Pet Sounds are spine-tingling, and for music fans seeing the recreation of the Wrecking Crew and their discussions with the boy genius Wilson…well, you leave the movie wishing there was more, more, more of that. But this is a bio-pic after all, albeit a better one than most, and so we get a living, breathing Wilson from Paul Dano and a touching and wounded older Wilson from the actor who looks nothing like him, John Cusack. Paul Giamatti plays yet another soul- and profit-sucking manager, twice in one year it happens. Terrific sound design from Atticus Ross, who creates an ambient bed of Wilsonics. Good but not great, and frustratingly truncated in its final act.


Room 2015 Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
A tough adaptation by the author Emma Donoghue of her own book, mostly ditching the voice of the five-year-old Jack, who has been raised to only know captivity in a small room. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, what remains is the survival narrative, first within the room and then SPOILER outside the room, where there are rooms upon rooms and more emotional minefields to traverse. It cries out for a more impressionist, stranger film, one that would tease more out of the metaphors (philosophical, political, psychological) that the Room sets up. Lenny Abramson, who directed the wonderful Frank instead works to get strong performances out of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. I was disappointed that the music takes the edge off what are the film’s most suspenseful section, opting for major key, piano tinklings. Though impressive, this is a room that I don’t need to revisit.


A Very Murray Christmas 2015 Directed by Sofia Coppola
Holiday piffle directed by Sofia Coppola, once again back in a hotel room overlooking city lights with a sad sack Bill Murray. Wants to have its critique and eat it too, it’s neither too meta, nor too entertaining. But you want to like it because it’s Bill Murray. Take-aways: Miley Cyrus and Maya Rudolph have an impressive set of pipes each.


Phoenix 2014 Directed by Christian Petzold
A slow burner with hints of Vertigo and Teshigahara’s Face of Another, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is about a woman (Nina Hoss) returning from the concentration camps with a new face and determined to discover if her husband sold her out to the Nazis. Her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) believes that this “new” woman Esther looks close enough to Nelly that she could help him get her inheritance, never suspecting that they are one and the same. Though we see a gun early on in the film, it’s a song that returns in the third act to do the most damage. A film about rebuilding identity after war and trauma, it’s also about memory and how we see each other, and the battle in a post-war environment to write and rewrite history.

And on television:


Marvel’s Jessica Jones 2015 Created by Melissa Rosenberg
While the current Marvel films are bloated punch-’em-ups, Marvel’s television experiments have been more grounded in reality and actual character development. The closest that a film has got to replicating in the viewer the after effects and lingering paranoia of sexual trauma, Jessica Jones gets quite nailbiting as it nears its middle section. It’s also a movie of its time in a culture that still has “problems” with the subject of rape. Krysten Ritter balances strength and vulnerability and David Tennant uses all his charm to counterbalance his villainy. Overlong by about two episodes, its climactic scene just misses the mark.

The 805 keeps it reel: Local filmmakers at the film fest and how short documentaries show off our town

Ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, filmmaker Jim Knowlton and a team of scientists explore tiny Swains Island in "Swains Island: One of the Last Jewels on the Planet. SBIFF
Ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, filmmaker Jim Knowlton and a team of scientists explore tiny Swains Island in “Swains Island: One of the Last Jewels on the Planet.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival brings Hollywood to our own backyard, but what about the filmmakers who are already here? The festival has long given our writers and directors their own sidebar to show off the many documentaries and fiction films produced here. Some come out of the many production courses available here, others from small production studios and others just have to make films by any means possible.

For the first time this year, SBIFF offers a prize for Best Santa Barbara Feature, and all the contestants are documentaries.

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States of the art: MCA SB’s Call for Entries show focuses on interactivity and abstraction

"Orchid Beat," Seyburn Zorthian Seyburn Zorthian
“Orchid Beat,” Seyburn Zorthian
Seyburn Zorthian

MCA’s annual Call for Entries intends to be a query on the state of art, 2015, in the tri-county area, a chance to honor a series of artists both new and experienced who are catching that special something in their nets and pushing art forward. There’s a lot of do-it-yourself in the show that’s been dubbed “Out of the Great Wide Open.” There are artists who want their art to be crowdsourced by the crowd, or to be manipulated, built and torn down. But not all in this show are tweaking the audience’s reaction so directly. Others in this exhibition that opened Saturday (and runs through March 29) still present canvases, but are pushing representation and non-representational art into new realms. There’s plenty to explore, and much excitement to be had.

MCA SB wants attendees to know that the exhibition’s artists come from places far and wide and have devoted a back wall in the museum’s educational area to their locations. (It’s a pretty cool map of the Central Coast — check it!). There’s space for the northerner Nick Wilkinson, who works in Los Osos and Erik ReeL, who lives in Ventura, and everybody else in between.

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The theory of Eddie: Affable actor Eddie Redmayne on becoming Stephen Hawking

 Eddie Redmayne received a Santa Barbara International Film Festival Virtuoso Award two years ago for his work on "Les Misérables." Ruven Afanador photo

Eddie Redmayne received a Santa Barbara International Film Festival Virtuoso Award two years ago for his work on “Les Misérables.”
Ruven Afanador photo

When Eddie Redmayne picks up the phone, he’s got handlers waiting outside, already prepared to take him to rehearsal. He’s had a full morning. On this particular Thursday, Oscar nominations have been announced and his portrayal of astrophysicist and all-around genius Stephen Hawking has earned him a Best Actor nomination and his co-star Felicity Jones, who plays Mr. Hawking’s wife Jane, a Best Actress nomination.

“I was in Los Angeles and asleep and I was woken up with this rapping on the door, and it was my manager at the hotel with a phone with a cacophony of screams from the team of people who have been supporting me for years,” he says. “I went from naught to 100 in the space of three seconds. I’ve been flying on adrenaline ever since.”

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All in the family: SBIFF honors the film and environmental work of the Cousteau family

 Jean-Michel Cousteau, along with son Fabien and daughter Céline, will be honored for their excellence in nature filmmaking. Ocean Futures Society

Jean-Michel Cousteau, along with son Fabien and daughter Céline, will be honored for their excellence in nature filmmaking.
Ocean Futures Society

The well-loved Wes Anderson film “The Life Aquatic” offered a parody of the ocean-bound family— the patriarch with his zeal for the open sea, and a family following in his footsteps, some with enthusiasm, some begrudgingly— and it worked so well because a generation knew the love-object of its satire, the Cousteau family. The real Cousteau family, now in its third generation (or fourth if you count their children), has wavered a bit from their grandfather Jacques’ mission, but they have never stopped putting the earth and the oceans first.

And so on Wednesday night, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honors father Jean-Michel, along with son Fabien and daughter Céline for the many documentaries, non-profits and awareness they have brought while carrying on the family name. The Richard Attenborough Award, which the festival has not awarded for five years, will feature an evening of interviews and screenings.

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All hail the king: Legendary producer of Elvis Presley’s ’68 comeback special will be at local screening at Plaza playhouse theater

Elvis Presley in 1964 Associated Press Photo
Elvis Presley in 1964
Associated Press Photo

Very few people could stand up to Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, least of them Elvis himself. But legendary producer Steve Binder did. It’s a story he loves to tell, and it resulted in one of The King’s shining moments, the famous 1968 comeback special. After years of Hollywood movie musical pablum, the Elvis people saw in ’68 was revitalized, dressed in black leather and — in the section of the special that would become its most beloved — sat down with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, his original Sun Records band, and jammed. That section influenced every similar acoustic set from MTV Unplugged onward.

Viewers will get a chance to see that special (with 30 minutes cut from original broadcast) in a screening Saturday night at Carpinteria’s Plaza Playhouse Theater, followed by a Q&A with Mr. Binder himself. This follows Mr. Binder’s previous appearance at the theater, where he screened the other famous show he produced, “The T.A.M.I. Show,” which showcased James Brown, The Rolling Stones and The Supremes. That screening, which was also a fundraiser for the theater, was sold out. No wonder they demanded Mr. Binder return.

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Image consciousness: Cathryn Michon’s new comedy film promotes positive body image

 Melissa Peterman, left, and writer-director-actor Cathryn Michon star in "Muffin Top: A Love Story." Deraney PR

Melissa Peterman, left, and writer-director-actor Cathryn Michon star in “Muffin Top: A Love Story.”
Deraney PR

Do creators have to suffer for their art? Well, in the case of writer-director-actor Cathryn Michon, the indignities of a bad breakup and the levels to which she sunk to conform to ideals of beauty turned out to be a fertile ground for comedy. First a book and now a movie, “Muffin Top” is a “body image rom com” that takes a farcical look at a serious issue. The film gets its sneak preview this Monday, with a red carpet screening at Fiesta 5, with the select members of the cast and director in attendance.

“Muffin Top: A Love Story” is about Suzanne (Michon), whose husband dumps her for a younger, skinnier model. She’s helped by her best friend Elise, played by Ms. Michon’s real-life best friend, the Tony-winning (for “Hairspray”) Marissa Jaret Winokur. And the man Suzanne goes out of her way to woo is played by David Arquette. Other funny people in the cast include Maria Bamford, Dot-Marie Jones (“Glee”) and the recently passed and sorely missed Marcia Wallace.

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Off the grid: Paul Gillis and Maura Bendett display at Cabana Home

Paul Gillis - Night III
Paul Gillis – Night III

Two very different approaches to painting can be found at the current and very modest show at Cabana Home. Artists Maura Bendett and Paul Gillis approach canvas as a puzzle to be solved, but as these dozen or so pieces show, there’s more than one solution.

Mr. Gillis works in infinitesimally small grids, creating problems for himself, then working himself out. Although his online portfolio shows familiar objects and silhouettes in his work, the selections at Cabana Home tend toward the abstract and geometric. His method consists — it appears — of working on top of stretched hessian fabric adhered to a canvas. Hessian is the underlying coarsely woven material used in rugs and tapestry, but here it becomes a grid for a further grid placed on top, drawn with graphic, ruler, and, one would assume, steady nerves.

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This chef keeps the lid on: Predictable French comedy has only food going for it


‘You are not creating these dishes,” says a critic to the up-and-coming chef in this flaccid French comedy. “You are just following a recipe. You are like someone singing karaoke.”

That sums up the majority of “Le Chef,” from director Daniel Cohen, which is thoroughly predictable and mildly amusing in molecular amounts. Not to be confused with the also formulaic “Chef” (this summer’s sleeper hit), this French film boasts Jean Reno as Alexandre Lagarde, a famous chef who is under the gun from his restaurant’s new CEO and the possibility that a couple of food critics will appear and dock him a star from his Michelin rating.

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Behind the mask: Frank’s musical odyssey is truly something remarkable, big head and all

Michael Fassbender as Frank
Michael Fassbender as Frank

In real life, Frank Sidebottom was a character created by British artist Chris Sievey, who performed live with a large, cartoonish papier-mache head on. His character was a bit Pee Wee Herman, singing in a reedy high register like he had a clothespin on his nose. The music was played on children’s instruments, but he covered major pop hits of the day — the mid-1980s through the ’90s. For those growing up in the UK during that time, he was an affectionate satirist, the music of working-class cul-de-sacs and corner newsagents, a contrast with the shiny business offices of the pop world.

However, in the fascinating and rather inspiring new movie “Frank,” we get a knowingly glamorized version of the story, but so far from the truth that it can hardly be called poetic license. Instead, director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Peter Straughan and former Sidebottom band member Jon Ronson have created a fantasy around the myth of the troubled genius. Behind his mask, Frank stands for all kinds of famous outside musicians, whose creativity gets tied into their mental illness. Yet it’s also a musing on the wonder of making music in a band, and in certain scenes the cast really captures that magic of when noodling turns into a song and a song turns into something transcendent. (The cast, apparently, really did jam and created the songs heard in the film, and it’s a thing of wonder that what comes out really does sound unlike anything I’ve heard before.)

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