The Kid with a Bike

March 29, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

DVD.  After seeing this brilliant little film, I have to declare 2012 the year of the French film as my two favorite films last year (“Amour” and this one) were both based there.  Both films show the telltale lack of “Hollywoodness” that I love in European films: a smallness of scope and authenticity of acting and the potential for any type of ending.  When this movie starts, 11 year old Cyril has been placed at a group home by his father (his mother is gone for reasons we don’t know) and now his dad has moved and left no information.  A kind woman from his old neighborhood agrees to take him for the weekends.  What unfolds is a beautiful and utterly believable story.  Cyril is a scared, lonely and very angry child and he is played with virtual perfection by Thomas Doret in his first film.  Every look, every guarded statement, every violent outburst feels completely real to me; I cannot remember a more believable portrayal of an emotionally damaged kid.  The film rests on him and his relationship with Samantha, who is played by Cécile de France (“Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” “Hereafter,” and countless others).  Her calm compassion helps to ground Doret’s performance and give the audience a connection to the world of the story.   The well-established French director/producer team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne pace the film perfectly and have a knack for creating believable situations and genuine dialogue.  In the sign of great film making, simple moments can be unbelievably heartbreaking.  This film has no easy answers or pat resolutions but it also is not morose.  It ends on a (probably) upbeat note; things won’t be easy but will likely turn out okay.  I like that.  I feels like life.

The We and The I

March 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

This is the most exciting film I have seen so far this year.  French film writer (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and director (“The Science of Sleep”), Michael Gondry, has managed to turn out a largely unique and energetic movie on adolescence.  Gondry wrote and directed the documentary style film about a large group of intercity high-schoolers riding the public bus home on their last day of school.  The entire film takes place on this bus on this ridiculously long ride in mostly real time.  There are a few creative asides that take us off the bus, mostly into people’s memories, but these moments tend to fall flat.  The real energy is on the bus and, while we are there, the film is magnetic.  This group of unknown actors, all using their real names, are a mixed bag of acting talent, with most of them having little of it.  Be prepared for awkwardly delivered lines and phony displays of emotion.  However, the few who can act are also fortunately the focus of the film.  The dialogue between them flows naturally and feels absolutely real.  In fact, there are moments that feel so real, I had to wonder how much ad lib and real-life was being superimposed on the script.  This was an interesting pairing with “Bully” (which I saw the night before) as it shows bullies in their element.  Over the course of the film, you see tables turned as kids turn on each other, in the way kids will, and you see the insecurity beneath all the bravado.  Gondry also makes brilliant use of technology, telling part of his story with texts, downloaded video and (in an inspired scene) we watch a phone call between a girl on the bus and a boy in a pizza parlor with the scene from the parlor appearing through the window of the bus as though it were right outside.  The movie had a grit and an edge and an energy that really kept it going, even during it’s weak moments.  Unfortunately, there were about as many of those as there were strong ones.  The film has multiple, interwoven plot lines and snippets of conversations that bandy back and forth.  I found about half of those plots interesting and the other half not.  This made the kinetic energy of the story somewhat faltering for me but, overall, I loved where it took me.  Like so many films, the last 10 minutes are a bit too neat and feel good and belie the strong characters that were developed throughout the film.  Young Michael’s movement and insight over the course of the film is believable… to a point.  The end stretches it just a bit too far.  With a slightly different ending, this could have made it on my best of the year list.

Bully

March 25, 2013 at 11:32 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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DVD.  I finally got around to seeing this documentary.  With all the buzz it received, I really felt like I had to see it but I kept putting it off; who’s ever “in the mood” to see a movie about real kids getting picked on?  Well, I was right to think it was going to be hard to watch.  There were times when my chest was tight and I had to get up and walk away from the screen for a moment.  I think anyone with any compassion will find this film heartbreaking.  We meet several picked on kids including a very awkward boy, who probably has Asperger’s, and an FTM transgendered boy.  We also meet two sets of parents whose son’s committed suicide because of bullying.  They are brave but they are broken people and watching them was devastating.  What was remarkable was to see how honest everyone was on camera: bullies kept on bullying, kids and parents went on complaining and school officials went on making unbelievable excuses.  It was as though nobody thought the cameras mattered.  I must say that I do feel more empathy for both the bullies and the school officials than this film allows.  Everyone is caught in a broken system that limits districts’ options and allows chaotic kids to continue to lash out because there is no boundary to help them contain themselves; nobody wins and nobody is happy (including the bullies).  Can something be done within these schools?  Yes, of course, but I think it takes a very strong personality who is willing to be hated by everyone (kids, parents, their bosses) to transform an individual school (they make movies out of people like that).  Unfortunately, I think it is unrealistic to expect your everyday teacher, principal or superintendent to be that person.   Real change will come only if there is a systemic shift.  In the meantime, I think anyone with kids in or going into middle or high school should watch this documentary, as painful as it is and, if they suspect for one moment their child is a bully, they should make that child watch it too.  Bullies are not heartless; they just need somebody to help them find the strength to address why they bully.

Barbara

March 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This spare German film might be a tough sell for people (the guy I went with hated it).  It appears to take place in the late 70s or early 80s in the DDR (East Germany).  Barbara is a doctor who has pissed off the government because she wants permission to leave the country, taking her free state-provided education with her, to be with her lover.  They respond by sending her to a rural outpost hospital to join another doctor being punished for the types of crimes that audiences can sympathize with.  In fact, little in this film makes any attempt to explore any moral ambiguities, though it pretends to.  The acting is strong enough and the scenes of the German woods and villages are often beautiful.  Barbara is frequently dressed in dark blue, thus standing out against the greens and browns around her.  I was struck several times by the simple beauty of this cinematography.  I also found much of the story of Barbara’s plans to escape to be interesting, though the plot and dialogue follow the typical European pacing that often baffles and frustrates American film goers.  There is real strength, compassion and beauty in some small moments.  Unfortunately, there are too few of them.  In the end, I was frustrated that Barbara was more of a good guy than a real person.  Her final decisions had been telegraphed throughout the last half of the movie but were never really explained.  It was a disappointing end to an otherwise decent movie.

Oz The Great and Powerful

March 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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½

Critics have skewered this film in relation to “The Wizard of Oz” but I must admit to not being a particular fan of that film either.  As most folks know, musicals are not well-beloved by me and I am also not much of a fan of Hollywood dramas of the Thirties; I find them to be saccharin and manipulative  (see “Gone With The Wind” or “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” as opposed to the brilliant German film of the era, “M”).  So, how to judge this film?  Well, it is not cloying or saccharin.  However, it is a modern Hollywood film, which is to say it plays by it’s own cynical formula; it is all surfaces and no depth.  The audience is treated to a constant barrage of fantastical images in colors so bright is puts Technicolor to shame.  3D (which is, of course, the new Technicolor) is as big a gimmick as color was in the first Oz film.  All sorts of things leap and pop, solely for the purpose of doing so.  In the place of actual character depth and emotions, we are given cuteness, in the form of a China doll and a talking monkey.  Yes, they are cute in the way that only small children and animals can be.  But, as with the rest of the film, there is nothing below that cuteness and, in the end, it only serves to highlight the emotional falseness of the film as a whole.  No real acting is required and none given.  James Franco is perhaps one of the most over-worked (actor, writer, director, poet, teacher) and over-rated (“Spider-Man?” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?”  Did he really have to do that much acting in “127 Hours?”) actors working today and he is in fine form here, so overplaying the grinning charlatan as to  add new meaning to “laughing at him.”   Even in green make-up, prosthetics and maniacal cackling, Mila Kunis’s voice is so hers that it was impossible not to hear Jacky from “That 70s Show.”  Perhaps, worst of all, I cannot even recommend the special effects of a movie built on them.  We have seen everything here before and, in some cases, done much better.  This isn’t the Thirties, so this film doesn’t end with any moral lessons about courage and love, thank god.  Instead, it ends as all of these movies do, with a jaundiced eye open toward sequels and tie-ins.  Which is worse?  I honestly don’t know.

No

March 10, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This film about the ad campaign to vote General Pinochet from office in Chilé was an Academy Award nominee this year.  Honestly, I could not begin to guess why.  I am fairly sure the film was meant to be a comedy but I wasn’t the only one in the audience who didn’t laugh once.  There were a few polite, awkward chuckles in places that were probably meant to be funny but the nicest thing I can say is that the humor must be cultural.  I do not typically mind rough production values but (at least at my cinema) there were distracting ghost images in parts of the movie and the subtitles often went by too fast to finish reading them.  Gael Garcia Bernal ( “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Bad Education”) is a fine actor whose acting here was so subtle as to be almost flat, which is the word I would use to describe the film overall: flat.  Dull, even.  So little happens and it happens so slowly that I started nodding off in the middle.  By focusing on Bernal’s muted reaction, the climactic scene is almost deliberately anti-climactic and the finally scene is just odd.  Overall, this was a real disappointment.

Side Effects

March 3, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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◊ ◊ ½

Steven Soderbergh is very hit or miss for me.  He has made brilliant films (“Traffic”), edgy art films (“The Limey”), pretentious nonsense (“Bubble”),  vapid blockbusters (the “Ocean’s” series).  I had not idea what to expect from his one.  It turned out to be a film in two parts.  I liked the first more than the second.  It started out as a serious and realistic drama exploring the ubiquity of mental health meds and the large industry behind their distribution.  The story starts with a 28 year old wife (Rooney Mara) reuniting with her husband (Channing Tatum) who has spent the last 4 years in prison.  He wants to reconnect with her and rebuild his life but she is deeply depressed.  She sees a psychiatrist (Jude Law) and he prescribes an SSRI.  When it has unpleasant side effects, they try another and another.  He consults with her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and she recommends a new drug.  So far so good.  Mara really shows her acting chops as she convincingly plays deep depression, lethargy, spaciness and the various other side effects she is required to pull off.  While the film appeared like it was going to be a complex look at our pharma-industry in this country, I was excited and drawn in.  Then act two begins.  I won’t bother to tell you anything about “act two” other than to say that, once I realized it was that type of movie, I suddenly had the whole story figured out; I knew the part each person was meant to play and how it was going to end.  This was no longer a thought-provoking drama, it was a Hollywood formula movie.  Now, having said that, it’s not a bad formula and can be a fun one to watch.  I did end up enjoying the ride, though (as is the case with this particular formula) the plot got less and less credible as the movie went on.  It ended up being silly fun.  Not a bad way to spend time at the movies but not the movie I wanted and not good use of a talent like Mara.

The Gatekeepers

March 2, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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Still on my documentary kick (after “56 Up” and “West of Memphis”), I had to see this much-buzzed Oscar nominated film about Israel’s Shin Bet.  Well, third time’s a charm.  I was absolutely fascinated by this movie every step of the way.  Somehow, director Dror Moreh managed to get all but one of the seven directors of the Shin Bet who served between 1981 and 2011 to sit down and be interviewed.  And be shockingly frank.  I was amazed to hear these men talk about missions, both failed and successful, to assassinate key Palestinians.  They admitted to key failures, including the deaths of innocents and even admitted to killing possible innocents intentionally as the only way to get at certain targets.  In one of the most griping scenes, Director Avraham Shalom (ironic name) admits to and then calmly justifies a calculated and shockingly callous decision.  It’s like a car wreck that you are appalled by but cannot look away from.  I should add that there are also photos of literal car wrecks in the form of bombed buses that are quite graphic.  The film does not shy away from showing us the effect of violence from both sides.  Another stunning moment came when one of the directors made reference to an American screw up (truly horrific in it’s outcome) that I had never heard of; it is hard to image anyone in the U.S. ever being as honest as these men were, though I am sure we have been every bit as guilty as Israel in our covert ops.  No small amount of time is spent with each of the men philosophizing about the morality of their behavior and how it has affected them.  The conclusions they reached in the final section of the film were almost universally identical and incredibly powerful.  Now, if only anyone would listen.

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