THE BOY

— by Jeff Schultz
The creepiest thing about this movie is the boy himself, a life-sized doll named Brahms. (Brendan Heffernan gets the credit as “Concept Artist”.) The haunting face, even though hard and glossy, seems like it may have a spark behind it — and although I wasn’t able to find any references to there being more than one doll made for the production, the face seems to alter slightly depending on whether Brahms is content or upset. In that, it must be said the doll is a better actor than Greta the heroine, played by tv actress Lauren Cohan (Maggie Greene on “The Walking Dead”). True, she isn’t given a lot to work with. But she confuses us by her reactions to the growing realization that Brahms (for whom she’s been hired as nanny) may be possessed. Is she scared? Bemused? Is she falling under Brahms’ spell and starting to care deeply for him? Hard to say. Plus, there’s a draggy relationship with a handsome grocer who shows up from time to time and a silly backstory related in multiple phone calls about Greta’s violent ex. Neither subplot is interesting because they have nothing to do with Brahms. But when the ex shows up, the mystery of Brahms is revealed (a pretty tired revelation), and what remains is a lot of chasing and killing and looking at your watch waiting for it to end. (Wacky double bill suggestion: THE BOY and LARS AND THE REAL GIRL.)

PAPER TOWNS

— by Jeff Schultz
John Hughes lives! As a sucker for bright-eyed, big-hearted high school movies, I was able here to overlook a major casting misstep and the stretchy premise leading to a “surprise” ending that isn’t difficult to foresee. As the dream girl, Cara Delavingne is supposed to be beautiful, mysterious, fascinating, intellectual, emotionally reckless and elusive yet accessible. The actress/model can’t pull it off, but we have to go with it because she’s the hero’s grail and the journey he takes to find her after she disappears is the key to his self-discovery. Fortunately, the hero is played by Nat Wolff, best known for his supporting role in another movie based on a John Green novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Wolff’s puppy dog vulnerability, liquid eyes and scrubbed innocence are generic to the genre, but there’s an intelligence to his acting that could take him places. (He’s set to appear in James Franco’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s IN DUBIOUS BATTLE). And Wolff’s sweetness is offset by the very funny Austin Abrams (Ron Anderson on “The Walking Dead”) who has the traditional sidekick role and runs with it. Mostly what I like about these kind of movies, when they’re done right, is the intensity of the friendships made during that transition to adulthood and the bittersweet sense of a chapter ending as graduation comes and the kids go their separate ways to college. It’s this part of PAPER TOWNS, rather than the dream girl quest, that shines.

ANGIE TRIBECA

by Alan Yudman

If you were giving an award for jokes per minute, ANGIE TRIBECA would blow away all competition. The bonus: It is incredibly funny. Rashida Jones is Angie. She’s a detective in Los Angeles. Her partner is J. Geils. There’s a cop who’s a dog. Not a K9, an actual detective who is a dog but the other cops don’t ever acknowledge he’s not human. It is in the vain of AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN. No mugging for the camera after delivering the joke. No time. You’d miss the next one. No laugh track. No need. You’ll know where to laugh. I had to rewind a few times because I had missed something while I was cracking up. And the guest stars in the pilot!!! Alfred Molina, Nancy Walls Carrell (she and husband Steve co-created the series), Lisa Kudrow, Gary Cole and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who plays a cop and is actually really good (better than his real job. Sorry, I’ll leave politics for another time). I’m sure I’ve seen some of these set ups in AIRPLANE, NAKED GUN or POLICE SQUAD but it doesn’t matter. It is still uproariously funny. TiVO is set. Monday nights on TBS. ANGIE TRIBECA is brilliant!!

STEVE JOBS

I was really surprised how much I liked this movie. It plays out in three acts and is completely dialogue driven…and in theory should be a bore! But with Danny Boyle’s kinetic directing, Aaron Sorkin’s tight script, and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance, this is one of the years best. Sorkin uses fictional moments to present facts about Steve Jobs…and it works. What may have doomed it at the box office and with Academy voters is that you need to know something about Jobs and what he did…otherwise you could lose a lot in translation. Which is probably why the geriatric Academy nominated the traditional, by the numbers, cold war snoozefest "Bridge of Spies" for best original screenplay and picture instead of this much worthier movie. Out of touch indeed.

Stormy Curry

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS

— by Jeff Schultz

86-year-old cinema verite master Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary is 3 hours and 10 minutes long — and yet I was amazed when the final credits appeared; I had thought it was only a little more than half over! Not for a moment is this “gorgeous mosaic” draggy or boring. Rather, it is a colorful, diverse, inclusive, funny, warmly human, democratic stew — a melting pot of the 167 languages, multiple cultures and lifestyles that co-exist for the greater part harmoniously in this stable (but changing) Queens, New York neighborhood. Utopia it’s not. Wiseman focuses on two ongoing problems roiling the serenity: homophobia and gentrification. In the latter case, the documentary seemed to be leading up to a public hearing at which small business owners — supported by community activists — would confront the developers and special interests tied to a Business Improvement District (BID) forcing mom-and-pop shops out in favor of Gap- and Home Depot-style mallification. The meeting is never shown, which actually left me wanting more. But the high points are many, including a class for would-be cab drivers taught by a teacher whose humorous advice on how to remember North, East, South and West only begins with “Never Ever Smoke Weed”; a 98-year-old senior citizen calmly discussing her loneliness; a harrowing monologue about illegals somehow managing to cross the Mexican border; an impromptu sidewalk prayer for a dying father; and staffers at a city councilman’s office patiently listening on the phone to complaining constituents. We only hear from adults, and we do not — a big omission, I think — hear from cops on the street. But that’s just a quibble. Wiseman remains at the top of his game, and we are all the luckier for it.

RAMS

— by Jeff Schultz
The title refers not only to the male sheep in herds tended on adjoining ranches by two brothers who haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years, but also to the brothers themselves and the stubbornness that keeps them apart. This widescreen tragicomedy features sweeping panoramas of rural Iceland — a cold, vast land that seems as far from Reykjavik as the country itself is from the rest of the world… and the brothers from each other. The discovery of the incurable disease scrapie in one of the animals triggers a series of events that leads to an angry eruption and then a reunion and then a battle for survival that ends with a bang and a whimper in a howling storm. The story is told with minimal dialogue and quiet humor, with a few big laughs, the biggest of which involves the transport of an unconscious man to the emergency room in a bulldozer. The aging, crevassed, Biblical face of Sigurður Sigurjónsson (who has the bigger role) goes past expressive into something rather eternal; it would be amazing to see him play King Lear. Kudos to the sheep as well — and to a clever border collie who functions as a four-legged messenger. 

SON OF SAUL

— by Jeff Schultz
Two hours of hopelessness and one man’s effort to make his last act count. A total immersion into the charnel house horror that was the Holocaust. Director László Nemes and his production team have conjured up a tactile sense of filth, death and chaos that carries through from initial scenes of Jews herded into gas chambers — the (literally) naked dehumanization, the screams, the pounding to get out, the piled carcasses, the scrubbing of blood off walls and floors — all the way to the final fusillade that brings the drama to its end. It’s remarkable, not least for the sound design, so unsettling in its horrific fury, so harsh and loud, making you realize that for these victims, there was hardly ever a moment’s respite and always the knowledge that death was imminent. The movie’s focus is the Sonderkommandos — Jews forced to work in the death camps as accessories to genocide, who were allowed to live just a little bit longer before their own extermination. With its semi-documentary feel, SOS resembles SCHINDLER’S LIST. (Astonishingly, SAUL was made for less than a million dollars. SCHINDLER’S budget: 22 million.) Unlike the Spielberg film, SAUL’s is an invented story (although bolstered by ten years of research). The story involves one Sonderkommando’s determination to secretly bury a Jewish boy with religious rites, a boy who somehow managed to survive his gassing — only to be suffocated right afterward by a Nazi who is told the boy is still breathing. Saul thinks of the boy as his “son”, and his single-minded determination (knowing it may get him killed, but also understanding he will be killed regardless) drives the film. The accomplishment is undeniable. Think of it: this project started on a piece of paper and was turned into a living, breathing, dying-in-agony onscreen depiction. Viewers will have to decide for themselves if it’s worth feeling like crap afterward, because you will. Not a date movie. 

TANGERINE

— by Jeff Schultz

So here I am, north of the Arctic Circle in the heart of winter, at an undeservedly obscure film festival in a mid-size Norwegian city, watching a sun-drenched drama that takes place almost entirely in the area around Santa Monica and Highland. The audience: almost entirely white. The movie’s cast: black tranny hookers, drug addicts, pimps and a closeted Armenian cab driver. I sensed bafflement when the lights came up, but that was their loss: this movie is fucking awesome. Amid the noise about diversity in Hollywood, here is a magnificent curve ball with full Establishment Indie credentials: distributed by Magnolia Pictures (REDACTED, JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI), produced by the Duplass brothers (THE SKELETON TWINS, “The Mindy Project”), directed by Sean Baker (“Greg the Bunny”) — proof that talent coupled to a revolutionary idea can get the all-important green light. Going in, all I knew about this movie was that it was completely shot on an iPhone 5s. That led me to expect something raw and unpolished, even amateurish. Was I wrong! This is a fully scripted, professionally edited, great looking slice of underclass acted with such heartfelt, all-in dedication, you really do feel as though these people are playing themselves. Covering one day and night of friendship, jealousy, catfights, crack pipes, cabaret, blowjobs and betrayal, it wins you over so quickly and goes by so fast, I could easily see this spun off into a series on Netflix or Amazon. (It’s currently streaming on Netflix.) From the very beginning, transgender actors Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are simply actors Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. (Yes, they’re playing transgendered characters, and so themselves, but these are no trick pony performances — they’re the real thing.) Add in the dazzling James Ransone as Chester the Pimp and a solid supporting cast — plus that Southern California sunlight, which is almost a character in itself — and you have an ensemble that tackles the whip-smart dialog and constantly morphing emotions in a screenplay that could have been just a collection of freaks, but chooses instead something far more generous. 

HOMESICK

— by Jeff Schultz
German director Jakob Erwa has been compared to Michael Haneke and Roman Polanski, and indeed, as this psychological thriller plays out, the latter’s REPULSION and THE TENANT come to mind. But too early, the question of whether talented young cellist Jessica is cracking under the pressure of an upcoming international competition – or is, in fact, being driven mad by her evil neighbor upstairs — is made clear enough to make the movie’s crucial final five seconds a bit of a fraud. Playing cat and mouse with the audience as to what’s real and what’s not is the point. However, actress Esther Maria Pietsch — whose punim, apropos of nothing, resembles Mayim Bialek’s — is pretty much a wacko bird from the start, so the puzzle is less intriguing than it could have been. Far better at keeping us guessing is Tatja Seibt as the neighbor, whose ultimate encounter with an electric hot water coil (not to mention what happens afterwards) may make you resolve to avoid apartment living. 

LIZA THE FOX-FAIRY

— by Jeff Schultz
One of the best things about film festivals is the chance to see vibrant, accomplished work from countries whose movies seldom make it to America. That certainly applies to Eastern Europe and to this Hungarian romp. The premise comes from Japanese Kitsune folkore: a sweet young nurse is transformed into a “fox fairy” by the jealous ghost of a pop singer (don’t ask, but he’s hilarious) — making her lethal to every man who wants to have sex with her. One chokes on food, another falls off a roof, another is hit by a bus, another is stabbed to death. The only thing that can break the spell is the selfless love of a man, who must die himself in order to redeem her. But this being a comic fairy tale, it ends with delight, not tragedy — as Liza’s redeemer somehow survives accident after accident, with mounting scars that are one of the movie’s best visual jokes. (The opening credits are also a treat.) This was a real crowd pleaser in Tromsø and has been shown at festivals in Austin, Seattle and Denver. It would be a shame if it wasn’t picked up by an American distributor.