A visual ‘Feast’

It was love at first bite. A single greasy french fry solidified the friendship between a man and his dog.

Directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell, and Raymond Persi, the Oscar-winning animated Disney short “Feast” is an irresistible potpourri of colors and sensations. It’s four-footed star is an adorable gray and white Boston Terrier mix named Winston.

Osborne gives us a dog’s eye view as Winston eats his way through pizza, pasta and popcorn. However, Lady-and-the-Tramp-style dinners are quickly replaced by Brussels sprouts and cilantro when his human meets a waitress at a restaurant.

Winston reluctantly settles into being the third wheel, but as he learns, sometimes there’s more important things than pizza.

“Feast” was directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell and Raymond Persi. The six-minute short won the 2015 Academy Award for animated short film.

‘Wild’s’ one big leap for womankind

When “Wild” begins, we’re greeted by Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) scream from the top of a mountain. She has a prominent bruise on one of her legs and is missing one of her toenails, but those aren’t the only things that mars her. Her journey up that mountain was a sort of personal atonement — the reconciliation she needed in order to absolve herself.

That’s the story Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (of the “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) creates with his 115-minute film, “Wild.” Based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the film (whose script is penned by author Nick Hornby) is a sort of docu-drama. Witherspoon plays Strayed, a likable girl setting on a personal quest for redemption.

Along the way, Mother Nature beats her up. She loses toenails, boots and a string of condoms as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail by her lonesome. Meanwhile, she’s forced to confront some of harshest truths about her past. Among them: grieving for her mother’s (Laura Dern) death.

“Wild” is a long film. For almost two hours, we’re largely left alone with Reese Witherspoon as a companion. She’s personable and unassuming, but like her, we feel the repetitiveness of the hike. Each minute is a chore. The backpack is heavy on our backs. The hot desert sun is burning our skin. The taste of cold mush is hard to swallow. Meanwhile, we’re running out of water.

It’s as if Vallée has a running tally on the screen: Strayed vs. Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is winning by a longshot. Day one: Strayed carries a backpack more than half her size. Day two: she discovers that she bought the wrong fuel for the stove she packed. Day 30: she encounters snow.

Of course, those aren’t the only roadblocks on the road less traveled. There are multiple times when we think Strayed will either be raped or injured. She looks honest and vulnerable. A man tells her to wait in his van.

Meanwhile, Witherspoon mutters a litany of swear words with each step. “Remember, you can quit at any time,” she reminds herself.

She doesn’t. Strayed’s a survivor, persevering beyond stereotypes. Her walk is symbolic and empowering — as if one small step is one big leap for womankind.

“Wild” was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Nick Hornby, based on Cheryl Strayed memoir. Reese Witherspoon was nominated for Best Actress in the 87th Academy Awards and the 72nd annual Golden Globe Awards for her performance in the film. 

‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’: the tale of girlhood

Last month, Dr. Sharon Marcus and Dr. Anne Skomorowsky wrote a through-provoking piece examining Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film, “Boyhood.” Their Wall Street Journal article argued that “while boyhood is filled with possibility, girlhood is limiting.”

This is evident in Iso Takahata’s poignant hand-drawn animated Oscar contender “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” — a Studio Ghibli production produced over the past five years. While “Boyhood” feels very real, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a fabricated fable about a celestial being who came under the care of a couple of peasants — a bamboo-cutter named Okina (Takeo Chii) and his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto).

Okina thinks the tiny Thumbelina he found in a bamboo shoot is destined to be a princess, so he does everything in his power to raise her like a daughter and to give her a better life. This includes moving the “Princess” away from their rural village and into the city. Okina even hires a private tutor (Atsuko Takahata) to teach her.

Based on the Japanese folk tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” Takahata’s film shows how a girl’s options are limited. “A noble princess does not frolic,” Kaguya’s tutor, Lady Sagami, tells her. A noble princess doesn’t open her mouth. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even attend her own naming ceremony (that’s a three-night celebration for men like her adopted father — whom dictate her path).

“I might as well not be here,” Kaguya expresses.

Instead, a noble princess is expected to look beautiful and marry well. Her beauty attracts the attention of five noblemen, each asking for her hand.

This is very different from the choices “Boyhood’s” Mason is given. For him, the sky’s the limit. For her, her only decisions revolve around marriage.

Although Kaguya is a resourceful heroine, she confined as she grows up. Initially, we see a cherubic and carefree baby, amused by nature. She captures a frog. She befriends baby swine. She’s charmed by the wind blowing and the cherry blossoms. We even see her swinging on a vine with the rural neighborhood’s lost boys, led by their Peter Pan/Robin Hood, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora). But her laughter and smile disappears as she’s forced to adapt to humans’ inhumane definition of beauty.

That’s a beautiful and illuminating lesson — as hard to watch as Takahata’s 1988 WWII piece, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Bring the tissues.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” was written by Iso Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi and directed by Takahata. The film was nominated Best Animated Film in the 87th Academy Awards. 

‘Birdman’ soars

Editor’s Note: This review was intentionally written with long winding sentences to mirror cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s oner. 

“Birdman’s” director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki give new meaning to “theatre in the round.” In one scene in Iñárritu and Lubezki’s Oscar-winning picture, the camera circles around a group of actors on stage, rehearsing a scene from the impending off-Broadway Raymond Carver production, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The camera circles several times, bringing us up close and personal to the faces of Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos, Andrea Riseborough and Michael Keaton — actors who play actors in a movie about theatre. The film’s ironically subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” but writers Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo are not ignorant to art. Iñárritu, Giacobone and Bo were also on the writing team of Iñárritu’s last Oscar-nominated picture, “Biutiful” (2010).

Their film is beautifully precise — taking the viewer from dressing rooms through winding corridors and down stairs to the stage. The camera moves through open windows giving us aerial views and low angle time-lapses of sunrises over towering buildings. In one scene, the camera even moves through time — from a shot of Keaton looking at a mirror to a dream sequence to a memory of what could have been weeks or months ago.

Scenes begin where others ends — making the entire film feel as if it were shot in one long continuous take. In reality, there are 16 visible cuts in the film and “Birdman” was edited in two weeks after a two month filming process.

While Lubezki’s dizzying cinematography and Iñárritu’s exacting direction makes this film soar, “Birdman” satirical script gives us another layer of “super realism.” Keaton’s cast as Riggan Thomson, an actor famous for his portrayal of Birdman in the superhero movie franchise. Keaton himself starred as Batman once upon a time.

Meanwhile, Edward Norton, a serious method actor who plays a well-known theatre personality named Mike Shiner, also stars as a parody of himself. Norton’s notorious for being difficult to work with, even “shadow directing” films he’s starred in. In one scene of “Birdman’s” self-aware script, Shiner’s seen directing actor/director Thomson’s character. Ironically, Norton gave Iñárritu his own two cents about the scene with Keaton.

This play’s both personal and intimate (it’s about love, after all). And as the show goes on, Keaton gets naked — both figuratively and literally — lending more and more of himself to his characters. The division between reality and imagination blend until you don’t know what’s real anymore.

That’s the blessing about the play, writes theatre-critic-at-large Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan):

“Thompson has unwittingly given birth to a new form, which can only be described as super-realism… The blood that has been sorely missing from the veins of American theatre.”

One thing’s for sure: you’ve never seen theatre like this before.

“Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. The film won four Academy Awards including for Best Directing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. 

Conducting ‘Whiplash’

When you think of the jazz greats, there’s Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker and Andrew Neiman. You probably haven’t heard of the latter, though, unless you’ve seen Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated film, “Whiplash.”

In the 107-minute drama, Miles Teller stars at 19-year-old Neiman, an aspiring jazz drummer attending the prestigious and cutthroat Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. He could be one of the kids from “Fame.” His dream is to become a household jazz icon and to do so means earning the respect of Shaffer’s studio jazz band conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher is not the encouraging chorus instructor in Ryan Murphy’s TV comedy “Glee”; instead, Fletcher resembles the abrasive cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester or a male version of Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” He’s the type of virtuoso that you both love and despise; you secretly hate him while constantly seeking his approval. Meanwhile, Fletcher spews cruel, racial, homophobic and religious slurs at you. He sounds like a football coach rather than a conductor, punctuating his speeches with curse words. But he can also be deceptively sweet.

In one scene Fletcher is reassuring Neiman: “The key is to relax,” Fletcher says. “Don’t worry about the other guys. You’re here for a reason. Have fun.” In the next scene, Fletcher humiliates Neiman in front of the band, hurling a chair at his head while enacting his favorite didactic story:

“Imagine if [Jo] Jones had just said: ‘Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job,'” Fletcher says. “And then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy.”

Simmons is absolutely captivating as Fletcher, abruptly changing his voice and moods like a finely tuned fiddle. One minute, he’s calm, melodic and inviting. The next, he’s loud, harsh and grating, instilling fear among his students. He dismissed his fourth chair trombone player, Metz (C.J. Vana), because the musician couldn’t answer if he was playing out of tune. He wasn’t, Fletcher later discloses, but that’s even worse.

Simmons and Teller jerk you back and forth from sympathy to disgust. Teller’s Neiman is driven, passionate and ambitious — literally drenching his drum sets with blood and sweat. But he can also be self-centered and high strung. At times, Neiman reminds you of Jesse Eisenberg’s antisocial portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s 2010 drama “The Social Network.”

When he prematurely breaks up with his love interest, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), you expect her to slap him. His reasoning seems distorted and he drowns a guarantee for normalcy with a slim chance for greatness. Drumming becomes his obsession; Fletcher, his role model. But this relationship is an abusive one.

The antagonistic relationship between a mentor and his young protégé isn’t new. We’ve seen this in dozens of films from “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Varsity Blues.” But director and screenwriter Chazelle (both literally and figuratively) drums up new momentum with the soundtrack (composed by Justin Hurwitz). Trumpets provide the sexy backdrop to young love while the breakneck double-time drumming provides the pulse in an adrenaline-driven frenzy. It’s uneven and all over the place —  just enough to give you whiplash.

Of course, the title of the film works on multiple levels. It’s the song that Neiman is learning to play when he joins Fletcher’s band. It’s also the visceral feeling you get when you watch some of the performances. (Chazelle’s even incorporates a car crash into his script, putting triple entendres to use.) It’s almost packaged too neatly, undermining the film’s playful and improvisational subject matter. That’s doesn’t mean this concert isn’t worth listening to.

Although “Whiplash” is only Chazelle’s second feature-length film, he’s a master conductor — cuing exacting cuts and powerful performances. It’s predictable and the story ends much like it begins — with a coda to Fletcher and Neiman’s perfect duet.

“Whiplash” was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for his role. “Whiplash” was nominated in the 87th Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing.  

From ‘Selma’ to Ferguson

Although the march from Selma to Washington that inspired the movie “Selma” occurred more than 50 years ago, Ava DuVernay’s Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film feels very modern. Early on in the film, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is petitioning President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office — asking him to expand voting rights for southern states.

King understood that voting was fundamental to change. There were murders and lynchings; the KKK blew up four girls in a Birmingham Baptist church. Everyone knew who the murderers were, but the terrorists were never punished. That’s because the scales of justice are weighted. “You can’t serve on a jury unless you can vote,” King tells Johnson. So white murderers were tried in white courts by white juries.

Oyelowo speaks like a Baptist preacher preaching the gospel of injustice. Scripted by Paul Webb and directed by DuVernay, Oyelowo’s speeches are very eloquent — full of metaphors and repetition. His words aren’t the ones King actually used — those words are copyrighted to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for Steven Spielberg’s pending MLK biopic — but they wash over us like poetry. In one scene, Oyelowo compares the black suffrage movement to trying to get a seat at any lunch table. Unfortunately, blacks and whites are given different opportunities and blacks can’t even read from the menu.

DuVernay slams us with imagery, appealing to our pathos. Edited by Spencer Averick, each bomb and gun shot is slowed down and personified. The four black girls from Birmingham look like broken porcelain dolls as debris flies everywhere. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is taken down by Selma police officers like a big black gorilla. Time freezes when Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is shot. These scenes are as violent and as controversial as when Hammond police smashed a car door window to tase the African-American passenger in the car. When we eventually watch the violent and historic showdown at Edmund Pettus Bridge, it feels as if a dam broke, and we can’t stop the waterworks as we cringe with each beating.

We know how this story ends. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6.

But even as “Selma” presents us with a form of closure, we know that years later, the white police officers responsible for Oscar Grant, Travyon Martin and Mike Brown’s deaths were also tried by courts. BART officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison; he got out in less than a year. George Zimmerman was acquitted for charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder. Ferguson’s former police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted.

And we still march crying, “No justice, no peace.”

“Selma” was directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. The film’s song “Glory” won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Selma” was also nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards. 

The je ne sais quoi of ‘Still Alice’

Early on in the film “Still Alice,” Julianne Moore is running. She’s not chasing after someone like she was in sci-fi thriller “The Forgotten.” She’s truly lost. And the monsters she’s running from are invisible — like the Silence from “Doctor Who.”

Moore plays Alice Howland, the type of woman you’d aspire to be. She’s poised and articulate. Intelligent and accomplished. And very, very loved. This is evident in the first scene of directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film, “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore as the loving and successful Columbia University linguistics professor.

When we first meet her, Alice is surrounded by her impressive family. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a doctor at Columbia University. Her eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) graduated from law school and is an expecting mother-to-be. Her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is going through medical school. Her youngest girl, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is pursuing a career in acting in Los Angeles.

Yet, if you’ve read Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel which the film’s based off of, you know how this story goes. Here’s a woman who has everything. Watch as she tragically loses it all.

Alice is running from something more far frightening than the aliens who kidnapped her kid. She’s running from Mother Nature, who gifted her with the inherited disease which also crippled her late father. At age 50, she’s been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer and she’s slowly losing her mind.

We watch Moore transform from the charismatic and self-assured professor and mother to someone who loses her bearings. She pulls out a bottle of Dove body wash from the fridge. She repeats questions and sentences over and over and over. She soils herself while looking for the bathroom in her own house. She doesn’t recognize her house-keeper or daughter. “I wish I had cancer,” she tells her husband. “I wouldn’t be so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.”

As Alice loses more and more of herself to the disease, the camera blurs. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir focuses his lens on Moore’s forlorn expressions and vivid red hair. In one scene, Alice is the only one in focus. Her husband and children are blurry in the background, discussing her treatment as if she’s not there.

Glatzer, who’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, might know what it’s like to feel invisible. ALS has taken his words, but not his mind. The film treats disease with sensitivity, but also forces us to confront the frightening effects of aging. We might also lose our minds someday — our ability to see, hear and think. Whether it’s at 50 or 100, our years are all numbered.

If it was Glatzer and Westmoreland’s intention to make us empathize with the sick and elderly, they’ve succeeded. The camera focuses on a series of text — Words with Friends, plays, lecture notes — all the building blocks of human communication. When we lose our words, we lose our ability to think as well as our ability to express our desires. We become invisible. A husk of our former selves. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have thoughts or feelings. We just might not know how to express them.

Through Glatzer and Westmoreland lens, Alice is never invisible. Moore shines. Instead, words, people, faces and settings blur around her. She’s still Alice — even as she loses her sense of time and place, her words and memories. She says so in a tear-jerking speech given at an Alzheimer fundraiser: “I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once…. It means so much to be talking here, today, like my old ambitious self who was so fascinated by communication.”

“Still Alice” was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland based on Lisa Genova’s novel. The film is nominated in the 87th Academy Award for Best Actress. Moore won the 2015 Golden Globe award for Best Actress for her performance as Alice Howland. 

‘Aya’ explores the mystery in moments

You think you’ve heard this one before: A woman drives a man in a car….

And then she’s raped or injured or (if you’re Flannery O’Connor) murdered.  

That’s not what happens in Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’ Oscar-nominated live action short, “Aya,” though.

You do expect something to happen — some sort of lesson or epiphany. Instead, the 39-minute French/Israeli short is filled with stretches of silence as a mysterious Israeli woman drives a complete stranger to a far-off destination.

Perhaps that’s the punchline. “Aya” certainly starts off like a comedy of errors. “Aya’s” opening scene resembles the British rom-com “Love Actually.” Instead of Heathrow Airport though, we’re greeted at Ben-Gurion — watching hugs and kisses and “I love you” balloons float to the ceiling.

Aya (that’s the Israeli woman played by Sarah Adler) looks sort of gloomy, talking on her cell phone, watching and waiting. Perhaps that’s why the cab driver feels comfortable approaching her when his passenger arrives. He hands Aya his colleague’s sign and after a series of mix-ups, Aya finds herself driving Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) to the Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Jerusalem. (See, there’s promise of comedy, right? Or perhaps one of those nasty Uber encounters you’ve heard about in the news?)

Written by Binnun, Brezis and Tom Shoval, this short feels like a puzzle you’ve given up on. Aya’s full of fun little contradictions: the kind of gal who feels more comfortable in a crowd.  The mysteries of this chance encounter are strangely intimate and will leave you perplexed.

“Aya” was directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis and written by Binnun, Brezis and Tom Shoval. “Aya” was nominated in the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short. 

Answering ‘The Phone Call’

Heavy breathing. A disjointed male’s voice. Crying.

“I’m scared,” the voice on the line finally says.

Mat Kirkby’s 21-minute Oscar-nominated Live Action Short“The Phone Call,” takes you through an emotional journey — evoking curiosity, wonder, helplessness, empathy and understanding.

The short stars the wonderfully expressive Sally Hawkins as Heather, a British Crisis Center worker. Hawkins carries the story, acting as your detective/journalist. With a pleasant, caring voice and a compassionate bedside manner, Hawkins reassures the reluctant man (voiced by Jim Broadbent) on the line, luring him to confide in her.

“We don’t trace calls, ever,” Heather says.

With those words, she navigates a mine field into one man’s past.

Kirkby and James Lucas’s poignant and engaging script has you hanging on to every word. Like NoMore.org’s Super Bowl spot about domestic violence, “The Phone Call” appeals to your pathos.

While we never see the person on the other line, “The Phone Call” reminds us that the invisible also have voices and stories to tell. They’re just waiting for someone to listen and share them.

“The Phone Call” was written and James Lucas and Mat Kirkby and directed by Kirkby. The 21-minute short from the UK was nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 2015 Academy Awards. 

Not a fowl note in ‘Boogaloo and Graham’

There’s a wonderful humor in Irish storytelling. This is apparent in “Boogaloo and Graham,” the delightfully “fowl” 14-minute Oscar-nominated Live Action Short written by Ronan Blaney, directed by Michael Lennox and produced by Brian J. Falconer.

The film is essentially a coming-of-age slice-of-life story taking place in the politically charged region of Belfast, circa 1978. The conflict is thankfully far off-screen as two chickens take center stage.

The hens I’m referring to are brothers Malachy and Jamesy. Their father (Martin McCann) gave them two baby chicks, which they raised to adulthood. Their names, as you may have guessed by now, are Boogaloo and Graham.

Malachy and Jamesy decide to fly the coop though when they find out their beloved birds are in jeopardy. Their Mother Hen (Charlene McKenna) says she’s nesting a baby and their chickens came first! 

Lennox directs lovely comedic montages, showing the boys walking their birds, sharing ice-cream as well as bathing them. If that doesn’t have you clucking and cackling with laughter, you’d be charmed by Blaney’s hilarious script and its eggs-cellent dialogue.

“Boogaloo and Graham” was written by Ronan Blaney, directed by Michael Lennox and produced by Brian J. Falconer. The 14-minute film from Northern Ireland was nominated for a 2015 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short and a 2015 BAFTA for Best British Short Film.