Kantemir Balagov has the confidence to tell his story chiefly through the faces of his characters as well as their placement in the frame, thereby…
This series features the movie questionnaires and reviews from 2015 published by our site's regular film critics. We continue with critic Susan Wloszczyna, who has reviewed such films as "Amy," "Cinderella," "Infinitely Polar Bear" and "Tangerines." Her Twitter handle is @wozerina.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
I was born in Buffalo, NY, but was soon uprooted and dragged kicking and screaming to a tree-less, desolate place where you couldn’t buy penny candy at the corner. Otherwise, known as the suburbs or, more specifically, the Town of Tonawanda. Yes, it was cold and sometimes miserable in the winter. But the natives are warm, the bars stay open to the wee hours and the summers quite pleasant.
Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
My parents’ whole dating routine revolved around movies before they were married and my Dad especially was a fan. We were both saps for a good cry and one of my first memories of watching a movie on TV with him is both of us weeping uncontrollably over Shirley Temple’s grandfather trying to find her in the snow in Heidi. As I grew older, "Going My Way" was the tear inducer of choice. We also liked a good laugh, and Abbott and Costello, the Dead End Kids, Danny Kaye and the Three Stooges delivered the goods.
What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
"Sleeping Beauty." For some reason, those thorns that grew on the rose bushes to block the prince as he tried to rescue her really unnerved me. I grew up loving animation as an art form and it remains one of my favorite subjects to cover and write about.
What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it"?
"Spartacus" with Kirk Douglas in Cinerama. I never saw a man’s naked chest that was so broad. And that cavernous chin dimple. I couldn’t fathom how he and my father could be the same species. The whole scope of the film just impressed and the passion that was on display. And those flaming logs were amazing.
UPDATE: Mike “Movie Mike” Clark, who was the senior film critic to my Jimmy Olsen-eager cub reviewer at USA TODAY for 12 years, was kind enough to point out in his own inimitable encyclopedic way that Spartacus, though shown in 70mm wide-screen, was not in Cinerama. He also was chagrined I did not mention his invaluable presence in my life, but now this takes care of that, too.
What's the first movie you ever walked out of?
"The Night Porter." I usually can tolerate kink and naughty behavior—and Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde made for a potent pair—but I did not have the stomach to continue watching them degrade each other onscreen that day.
What's the funniest film you've ever seen?
When I was 8, "It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." When I was 10—and knew a little bit more about sex—"Some Like It Hot." When I was 16, "Duck Soup." "Animal House" in college. As an old person, "Young Frankenstein."
What's the saddest film you've ever seen?
"The House of Sand and Fog." I still suffer depression from the scene with the dry cleaning bag.
What's the scariest film you've ever seen?
"Night of the Living Dead." Saw it at a drive-in with a friend when I was 16. I had never seen anything like it before. What made it worse is that people started walking around like zombies and tapping on car windows. I had my friend go upstairs with me with I got home to make sure my parents weren’t eaten. It has had a permanent effect on my psyche, so much so that I was a zombie extra in George Romero’s "Land of the Dead."
What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?
What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
"The Monkees," since it made me spend my money on records, magazines and concerts.
What book do you think about or revisit the most?
Charlotte’s Web or Jane Eyre.
What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
"Schindler’s List" and now "12 Years a Slave." These are movies that make you hold your breath for two hours and then you weep. Also "Eraserhead." The ambient noise gets so under my skin.
What movie have you seen more times than any other?
"Flashdance." Yes, "Flashdance." It was the right movie at the right time, fulfilling some sort of twisted female fantasy for me. I worship Cynthia Rhodes and thought Jennifer Beals was the most talented performer on Earth until I went back the second week and realize there was an army of stunt doubles doing the difficult stuff. I even told director Adrian Lyne that I had seen it at least 40 times and he said he felt sorry for me.
What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
I spent an inordinate amount of time at age 14 or so plotting to get into R films. When we finally succeeded, it was 1970 student-protest comedy "Getting Straight" with Elliot Gould. The main reason for the R was female nudity. I thought, “Heck, I can see that in the mirror for free.”
What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?
Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?
Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?
What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
"The Greatest Show on Earth," long derided as one of the worst best-picture Oscar winners ever. Over the top and under the Big Top is fine with me.
What film do you hate that most people love?
"The Outlaw Josey Wales," mainly because my husband insists on watching it every single time it is on, which feels like almost every day.
Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
Before we were married, I convinced my husband to go to a Visconti double bill of "The Damned" and "Death in Venice." Little did I realize we would be endangering our health by seeing it at the Allendale Theater in Buffalo, a 1913 structure that was in dire need of heat, vermin control and general decontamination. By the time the two films were over, he had developed a cough that sounded as if he had black lung and I swear I had pink eye. Oh, somehow, we did enjoy the films.
What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
The commercials and wimpy ushers who only seem to adjust the temperature instead of maintaining decorum.
What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
The way they make it into a special experience, the equal of going to a live stage production. Movies like "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music" wouldn’t be yanked after a couple weeks. The theater—which were palaces left over from the vaudeville era—would place permanent marquees out front for the entire run. There were special books you could buy about the movie and the concession stands served tie-in snacks—I remember drinking a "My Fair Lady" pink lemonade.
Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
Not really. I am careful not to take anyone with me to a film I am pretty sure they won’t like. There is nothing worse than trying to enjoy a movie while worrying about the person next to you twitching in their seat, sighing, and checking their watch.
What movies have you dreamed about?
"The Birds." And that was only after my older cousin told me the whole plot and described the gross parts in detail. When I finally saw it, it was even scarier than I imagined.
What concession stand item can you not live without?
Popcorn. Small bag. No butter.
Just how awful could it be? Really awful. Unwatchably awful. As in, “Give it the Razzie now and be done with it” awful. From its intrusively generic soundtrack heavy on cheesy strings to the painfully frantic attempts at supposed funny business (consider that Paul Reubens aka Pee-Wee Herman provides probably the only well-modulated performance), “Accidental Love” could easily qualify for disaster relief.
It is odd and disappointing how [Michael James] Johnson gets almost everything right but fails when it comes to the undernourished script. […] He fails in the all-important storytelling department, since it eventually becomes clear that there is not that much story to tell.
What sets “Amy” apart from similar train-wreck bio-docs […] is the almost overwhelming sense of voyeuristic intimacy achieved by a vast array of archival clips, many unseen before and some shot by Winehouse herself, accompanied by vividly candid current-day audio commentary by those who knew her best. Sometimes, it feels as if we are eavesdropping on day-to-day conversations rather than just hearing the usual litany of platitudes and regrets.
Too often “The Art of Forgery” turns into a how-to guide, initially interesting but ultimately belabored, with Beltracchi meticulously deconstructing the methods he employed to pass off his new art as old, from reusing period-correct frames and canvases bought at flea markets to tucking pieces of dust and dirt into the back of his paintings. It’s like watching a magician reveal his secrets, which is usually less fun than watching him pull a rabbit out of his hat.
You won’t be able to take her eyes off of [Jennifer Aniston], which is a good thing since it will take a while to notice that the film surrounding her starts to go soft around the edges until it collapses all together. Like an underdone, well, cake.
Cas & Dylan *1/2
Along the way, we are supposedly gaining insight and wisdom about how best to live and to die. But, mainly, we are discovering how a 90-minute movie can feel twice as long.
Instead of letting go of the essence of “Cinderella,” [Kenneth] Branagh boldly chose to embrace every familiar detail of this romantic fantasy: the hearth cinders that give Ella her nickname; the pumpkin that turns into a carriage; Cinderella’s rodent best friends; and, of course, the glass slippers—courtesy of Swarovski.
Nothing like a trashy, all-hell-breaks-loose onslaught of blood, bullets and babes that borrows inspiration from a recycling bin stuffed with leftovers from ‘60s grindhouse films, Japanese horror, “Kill Bill,” “Saw” and splatter-fest videogames to cleanse one’s visual palate of those highbrow Oscar contenders.
If anyone is punished by “Fifty Shades,” it is the audience. By the time the screen goes black, leaving much unresolved and little in the way of a real climax, no one can blame those who loudly groaned after realizing they have to wait for the inevitable sequel for any sort of real satisfaction.
There are some clever moments, such as Oh’s big dance number to Stargate’s “Dancing in the Dark.” However, we then have to listen to Tip say, “Shake your Boov thing.” Matters could be worse.
Hotel Transylvania 2 *1/2
I kept myself preoccupied by trying to mine some good in the bad, although having to sit through the lamest Count Chocula reference ever made it difficult. […] If this all sounds rather dull, that is because it is.
Infinitely Polar Bear ***1/2
There is an intoxicating authenticity and welcome low-key humor to what happens during the rest of this episodic story that manages to gently touch upon societal shifts, the class system, corporate sexism and racial identity as it shows how even an emotionally damaged adult can still summon enough caring and devotion be an effective primary caretaker.
That “Insurgent” and its predecessor prove to be at least halfway decent diversions is primarily thanks to leading lady [Shailene] Woodley’s ability to fully commit to her character’s internal journey as she eventually evolves into a self-sacrificing savior figure after being riddled with guilt and grief while summoning the sympathies of the audience.
The Keeping Room **1/2
“The Keeping Room” does exceed “The Beguiled” with its progressive gender politics and morose minimalist approach. But when it comes to presenting a more watchable story, the older film would be the one that stops you from clicking to another channel if it pops up on TV.
The Last 5 Years **1/2
It offers enough gooey goodness at its center to take some of the bitter edge off its battered take on the harsh realities of romantic commitment. Still, as a date-night viewing option for this weekend, this nearly all-sung autopsy of a failed marriage would pretty much qualify as a Valentine’s Day massacre.
I don’t think I am alone in feeling disconnected these days from what the documentary “Live From New York!” presents as a still-revered weekend ritual but what has become in many ways a relic that is past its prime.
Loitering with Intent **1/2
It starts off promisingly with intriguing characters and a lush summer home setting but ends up as just another reverie about what is truly important—basically, a combination of love, friendship, loyalty and being honest with yourself. And drinking. Lots of drinking.
The Longest Ride *1/2
Nicholas Sparks novels might be classified as romantic dramas. But don’t be fooled. In reality, they are sci-fi adventures that unfold in an alternate universe. It’s a place—let’s call it Sparks-landia—where […] eventual plot twists are often telegraphed from the moment the opening credits begin and relationship barriers that could be easily resolved are instead treated as if they were the iceberg that struck the Titanic.
Matters go astray midway through when too much time is spent on a far-fetched subplot about a gang of Mexican arms dealers that obtains its contraband weapons from a corrupt American soldier. Lassie and her child companions often got into some dicey scrapes, but as much as I can recall, they usually didn’t result in much of a body count.
Mr. Holmes **1/2
A certain placidity seeps into too much of the film, even if [Ian] McKellen is consistently enjoyable […] But whatever tension exists onscreen primarily is in Sherlock’s mind. And, in this movie at least, it is like watching a door oh so slowly being shut.
October Gale **
You either have the genre gene or you don’t. But at least [Ruba Nadda] provides some room for [Patricia] Clarkson to show her stuff before she is reduced to taking aim at bad guys in the darkened woods.
Paper Towns ***
The smart script is brave enough to venture beyond yesterday’s fleeting Twitter fodder for its pop-cultural references. As a result, “Paper Towns” might be the only movie to ever pay tribute to Walt Whitman’s poetry, Woody Guthrie’s music and the empowering theme song from the “Pokemon” cartoon series.
The feature debut of Australian director Ariel Kleiman, who co-wrote the script with partner Sarah Cyngler, is a moody drama that employs a dystopian-type premise that is not too far afield from a typical young-adult book series although with loftier aspirations and a less propulsive pace.
Pitch Perfect 2 **1/2
For every moment of cleverness (among them, the treatment of the Universal Studios fanfare and this Fat Amy aside: “You’re the most talented person I know, and I’ve met three of the Wiggles—intimately”), there seems to be a half-dozen attempts at humor that strain for laughs.
“Project Almanac” might appear to be the perfect cautionary tale for Generation Selfie, which too often seems to feel they are entitled to get whatever they want, whenever they want it and at whatever cost. But the sci-fi flick does a much more convincing job as a reminder that the time has come to finally tell the found-footage genre to get lost.
Saint Laurent **1/2
Ultimately hollow as director Bertrand Bonello keeps his subject somewhat emotionally at bay, the movie is also at times quite addictive—much like Opium, the controversial name of Saint Laurent’s famous scent.
As a pushover for this distinctly Ol’ Blighty brand of comedy, the chuckles came early and often for me. There is something in the way that the sheep’s mouths unhinge and slip sideways whenever they emit an utterance or simply smile that I find charmingly ingenious in its physiological impossibility.
Song One **
In her feature debut, writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland tends to tiptoe away from the dramatic high notes that audiences often crave and comes up a stanza or two short from a fulfilling resolution.
Spare Parts **
The issue of so-called “illegals” could not be more timely and, if “Spare Parts” does anything, it attempts to humanize the situation of those children who cope with this limbo-land existence without having had much choice in the matter.
It’s a bust-a-gut thing of beauty to watch her give a wholly satisfying lead performance with a complete dramatic arc. Just observe how her eyes dramatically moisten in reaction to her top-notch co-stars in ways that would make Bette Davis proud. That’s even if her lips are spewing a scathing string of inappropriate R-rated putdowns.
By the end, Georgian director-writer Zaza Urushadze has performed a small miracle by presenting the insanity of war in such a compact form. The film's insights might not be of the grandiose sort found in Hollywood’s massive battle epics. Nor are they unique. But they are perhaps even more affecting because of the film’s intimate scale.
10,000 KM ***
This minimalist approach to storytelling has some inherent drawbacks but never is reduced to just being a gimmick. It’s true that watching Sergi berate Alex’s cooking techniques as she botches the simple act of frying onions or seeing her sort her socks much to Sergi’s bored chagrin is not exactly electrifying cinema. But nothing will break your heart as much as watching this man, desperate to keep this woman in his life, waltzing around the room with a laptop in his arms while staring into her faraway eyes.
That Sugar Film **1/2
[Damon] Gameau himself also shows a penchant for walking about in neon yellow or orange underpants during his medical check-ups. It’s all very cute, but if you want sugar-drenched whimsy, why not indulge in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” instead?
A Walk in the Woods **1/2
One wonders what might have been if [Paul] Newman were still around. Oddly enough, there is a scene that briefly summons memories of Butch and Sundance when the guys are trapped on a ledge and peer over a harrowing incline to see a body of water below. I kept hoping they would jump in together. But it was not to be.
Welcome to Me ***
“Welcome to Me” basically lives and dies by [Kristen Wiig's] performance, and, luckily, her Alice Klieg is a carefully and cunningly crafted creation, which exposes an undercurrent of pain and sorrow beneath her often placid, pixilated state.
Woman in Gold **1/2Gilding the script, which strings together multiple story strands surrounding Maria’s eventual landmark legal case that would allow reparation to Jewish descendants, is a mother lode of platitudinous sentiment that will likely prove pleasing to the masses but will irk those more cynically inclined.
A TV review of Star Trek: Picard.
The 2020 Oscar nominations.
A review of FOX's 9-1-1: Lone Star, starring Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler.
A tribute to the late, great Terry Jones.