Spy

June 28, 2015 at 7:22 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

So, this is my first Melissa McCarthy experience. I don’t watch her show and have not seen any of her other movies. I was planning on making her my new Sandra Bullock (before “Gravity,” I had only ever seen her in “Speed”). However, I was drawn by the 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and decided to give her a try. I was not completely disappointed. As many have stated, McCarthy is a natural physical actress with a great gift for pratfalls, slapstick and a beautiful range of facial expressions. In addition, she has a unique skill for looking wide-eyed and innocent while simultaneously being aggressive and shockingly vulgar. This style of humor was on full display here and mostly to positive effect. The film started slowly and took a while to build any momentum. Most of the cast of A-list actors (including Jude Law, Allison Janney, Jason Statham and Bobby Cannavale) play utterly one-dimensional and largely unfunny characters. It is not until McCarthy’s character meet’s Rayna, played by Rose Byrne, that the film actually finds its groove. While both McCarthy and Byrne are reasonably funny by themselves, they are laugh-out-loud funny when interacting with each other. Those scenes, and there are a fair number of them, lift the film into something more than the formulaic mess it would have otherwise been. The plot, action scenes and so many of the film’s conceits are ridiculous but one can allow for that in what is essentially a caper comedy. All that is required is that it entertains and, for large chunks of the film, is does that quite well. I’m not sure how much of these type of characters I could put up with or how many times I would find it funny and I hope McCarthy has a broader range than the crass slapstick required here (I know Byrne does). That said, they did exactly what was required and did it better than I can imagine many actors doing. Often this film doesn’t work (as in the needless 50 Cent cameo) but, when it does, it is entirely because of the McCarthy-Byrne chemistry.

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The Wolfpack

June 23, 2015 at 3:31 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

While probably not for everyone, I found this documentary to be brilliantly unnerving in all the right ways. For about 5 years (presumably from 2010 until 2015), documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle was given astonishing access into the lives of a very strange New York family. The mother, who grew up in the Midwest, met her South American husband while hiking the Inca Trail as a young woman. They moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan with plans of saving money and moving to Scandinavia some day. Instead, they got suck and ended up raising seven children in their small apartment. And I do mean literally raising them IN the apartment, as the kids grew up effectively never leaving home. They were home schooled and stepped foot outside of the apartment just a a few times a year. How does a child survive that? Well, it would appear in this case, they do it remarkably well with humor, sensitivity and a good deal of creativity. Moselle (who has made just one other film 10 years ago) focuses almost entirely on the 6 brothers, all of whom have Hindu names. The fourth brother, Mukunda, is the primary voice of the film. A couple of the other brothers do speak some, particularly as they get older, but it is Mukunda we get to know best. Fortunately, he is insightful and emotionally honest enough that he is able to carry the film. My one frustration, and it is a big one, is what remains unexplored. So many questions are unanswered: how did Moselle gain access to the family to begin with and how did she build their trust? The one sister is virtually invisible in the film and appears to be perhaps mentally disabled. Why is she so completely ignored? And, perhaps most significantly, it feels like there are secrets in the house that are never spoken on camera. One of the boys very elliptically references possible physical abuse and, at one point, one boy says that, “there are just some things that can never be forgiven.” Moselle doesn’t push. In fact, she never pushes. This is not a criticism. Somehow, Moselle was able to gain access to this remarkable family and I am hard pressed to complain about her methods but I do suspect that access was earned through a fair amount of collusion that ultimately obscured part of the story being told. In the end, this documentary appears to have helped several of the boys leave home and get established and Mukunda has recently worked as a production assistant on a short film. That matters for something. And I, for one, am grateful to have discovered these boys at all, who seem to me a testament to the human ability to thrive. In the film’s final moments, we watch the making of a film Mukunda wrote. It’s the story of a boy who watches through a window as emotions float by. His family members, all in elaborate homemade costumes, play the emotions. This simple story of a boy looking through the window (like a boy watch the movie screen), understanding himself through others, had such a depth of honesty; it was a stunning piece of art. It captured everything that is best and most powerful about film.

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

June 23, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I don’t know how much of a wide release this film will get as I saw it at the Frameline film festival. However, it was popular and has garnered some international attention, so it may end up with a distributor. Filmed in rural Thailand, it tells the story of two 21-year old men, who are also boyfriends, who are both awaiting the draft. In Thailand, every male must participate in the lottery by picking a sheet of paper out of a basket. Those who draw red must serve for two years, those who draw black are exempt from service. Jai is from a wealthy family, while Ek is poor and much of the tension of the film is in how those differences play out. The fact that they are gay, and their friend is transgendered, is treated as irrelevant in this almost utopian view of Thai attitudes toward sexuality. The director and producer, who were present at the screening, acknowledged that this was an idealized take designed, in part, to help the audience “envision” what the world could be like. I admit, it was nice to see these issues dealt with as absolute non-issues and, in the end, sexual orientation was irrelevant to the story line. The core story was of Ek’s relationship to his younger brother, Oat, who was the narrator of the story. He is the one who must learn to beat his brother at checkers and buys a book that shares the movie’s title. Winning at checkers becomes symbolic of how to succeed in their stratified, unfair community and also represents Oat’s loss of innocence. His finally winning the game ultimately sets in motion a rapid a painful growing up. The film ends somewhat cryptically and leaves the audience wondering what, if anything, Oat did to affect the final outcome and what he has been finally willing to do to win (every time). I liked this ambiguity and liked the film generally. It was visually quite beautiful and there were some smart moments of cinematography and scene construction. Also, the acting was very polished for a smaller lower budget film. Given that neither the director (who is Korean American) or the producer (who is Indonesian) could speak Thai before starting this film, it’s impressive that they were able to get such natural performances from their actors. If I have a criticism it is only in that there wasn’t much surprise in the film. It telegraphed where it was going and went pretty much exactly there. There was one nice twist, a genuine shock, shortly after Oat won this game. I would have liked to have seen that revelation (and its implications) explored and it really wasn’t. Those implications are hinted at by the apparent life path Oat takes but I couldn’t help but feel that was a missed opportunity. That could have made this pretty decent film into a really good one.

Inside Out

June 20, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Posted in 2015 | 1 Comment
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After having seen every single Pixar picture for it’s first 15 years, I had become a bit fatigued by the formula and far less wow’d by the animation. I began letting newer films slip through the cracks and, the truth is, I haven’t seen one in several years. However, the buzz on this one was strong enough and I was intrigued by the idea. Well, what a great time to return to the fold. This may well be the strongest of their films yet. While not as full-on kid fun as something like “Finding Nemo,” this film has a complexity, maturity and depth of emotion that is easily as good as anything we saw in the “Toy Story” trilogy. While it lacked the character development “Toy Story” was able to achieve over 3 films, there was much greater emotional complexity explored here. Eleven-year-old Riley has to contend with her family’s move to San Francisco and it has sent her into turmoil. This simple, everyday event is the basis of this entire film’s exposition into human emotions and what we get is an incredibly nuanced view of how we think and feel that threatens to teach fully grown adults a thing or two along side their kids. There is, in the end, a beautiful message about the vital role sadness plays in our lives (ie joy is a wonderful thing but a fixation on pleasure in the face of loss can be crippling). This is complex, heady stuff; we are not in “Snow White” and “happily ever after” territory here. But, don’t worry, there is plenty to laugh at, as well. Pixar continues to do a brilliant job of layering the humor for all ages and includes some wonderful zingers for the adults, including some great San Francisco-specific jokes (“there are no bears in San Francisco!” “I saw a really hairy guy. He looked like a bear.”  Ha!). This is fun stuff, while also being pensive, insightful and moving. Pixar has raised the bar on what we can expect from our childrens films and what we can expect our children to understand. I, for one, think we are all up to the task.

The Apu Trilogy

June 18, 2015 at 4:07 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I have decided to review these three films together. This is partly because they are an old series that is being re-released now, partly because they were re-released together and I saw them all a few days apart and partly because I doubt any of my readers will try to see just one of the films, if you bother to see any of them at all. The three films were released in India from 1956 – 1959 and were highly received by critics at that time and often show up on lists for the greatest films of all time. They were all directed by Satayjit Ray who developed them from two famous Indian novels. They launched Ray into international stardom, with directors from Kurosawa to Coppola waxing poetic about his work. All three films were thought completely destroyed in a London film lab fire in 1993. However, over the next 20 years, they were painfully restored through a complex process involving collecting bits from here and there and rehydrating old negatives. The end result is a lavish restoration. And lavish is the word; the films look like they could have been made last year. They are bright and vivid and effuse with texture. Each time I sat to watch them in the theater, the previews included one for a re-release of “The Third Man,” which is a contemporary of these films. It was fun to be reminded of the look and feel of noir-era black and white while watching Ray’s work, which is so unlike noir. He traded the dark shadows, silhouettes, angular cuts of light and sense of menace for a brightness that felt almost otherworldly at times. This radiance, which was especially present in Ray’s love of the close up, belied the difficult and often tragic subject matter. These were films about death and loss and loneliness, with the slightest of nods to redemption at the end. The stories follow Apu from his childhood into manhood in early 20th Century India. Trains are a recurring metaphor in each film as they explore the peregrinations of this young man against the backdrop of a country moving rapidly toward industrialization. Each film ends with Apu starting a journey from rural India to Calcutta, though to markedly different effect each time. Each film is also marked by Apu’s relationship with a woman and how that relationship shapes him. In the first film, “Pather Panchali” (“Song of the Little Road”), Apu is a small boy who idolizes his older sister, who treats him ambivalently. Often she draws him close and includes him in her excursions from home, sharing secrets with him, but also rages against him at times. Later, in “Aparajito” (“The Unvanquished”), Apu is a teen who is himself ambivalent toward the attentions of his doting and anxious mother. He struggles between seeking her approval and proving his independence. Finally, in “Apur Sansar” (“The World of Apu”), Apu marries a young woman he has just met and both must balance their doubt and hopefulness as they enter this relationship. In the end, this life of ambivalence plays out in Apu’s relationship with his son and he must decide if he is strong enough to be the father he lacked. This story arc is a compelling one and is, at times, poignant and heartbreaking. For me, the third film was a bit of a let down after the first two, in part because I found the lead actor’s acting to be weak (while most of the cast were amateur actors, I was less distracted by that in younger actors) and partly because I felt that final scene of the film had not been earned. Ray should have spent more time on the development of the relationship between Apu and his son if he wanted to justify the father’s and the son’s final decisions. This is a small quibble, though. Overall, I found these films to be a beautiful window into another culture at another time.

Love & Mercy

June 7, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

This biopic about Brian Wilson is less the story of the Beach Boys or even of his life, in particular, and more about his creative process. It is essentially the story of how (and why) Brian Wilson created. As such, it’s interesting stuff and, in fact, might be truly fascinating to someone who is a great lover of his work. I must admit, I know most of his popular songs by heart but very little about him and have not given his music much thought; it always seemed like the quintessential pop to me. So, from that perspective, this film was eye opening. It helped me to appreciate how revolutionary he was and how burdened he felt by his need to create. Told in two, interwoven parts, the story focuses mostly on his efforts as a young man in the 60s to push beyond the Beach Boys’ defined sound, while intersplicing scenes of him as an older man in the 80s, trying to find love. Wilson is played by Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “12 Years a Slave”) and John Cusack (“Being John Malkovich,” “High Fidelity”) respectively. Watching the two actors’ interpretations of the same character was one of the primary joys of the film. Both played him with an undercurrent of pensive wonder and sadness that helped to connect the two performances but Dano’s Wilson was much more expressive and hopeful, while Cusack played a man broken by life. The running theme through all scenes was the way Wilson was haunted by his need for his father’s approval and how that played out in dangerous ways; he remained dangerously obsequious to strong men throughout his life. For all this though, there was little else that engaged me. We learned almost nothing of the rest of his family and bandmates. In fact, all but two or three characters in his life remained largely unexamined. This left the final product feeling a little unfinished and unsatisfying. We were given fascinating glimpses into the man but not really a very full picture.

About Elly

June 7, 2015 at 7:45 pm | Posted in 2015 | 2 Comments
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This film starts with a simple image: we watch the opening credits from the inside of a mail box on a busy street, watching envelopes slip into the small crack of light in this otherwise dark space. It’s a an evocative image that takes a moment to understand and seems to cast the banal in a slightly menacing light. With that, the tone is set for this clever film from Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation” and “The Past”). Originally released in Iran in 2009, it was re-released after “A Separation” one an Oscar three years ago. In it, three married couples go to the beach for a vacation. They bring along their small children and two single friends, whom they hope to set up with each other. But their initial revelry goes terribly wrong and things start to unravel. This film appears to be a standard mystery on the surface but, true to Farhadi’s other films, it is ultimately about the state of male and female relationships in modern Iran. It’s impossible to imagine how this story would read to an Iranian audience, but it serves as a fascinating glimpse into a world of values and priorities very unusual to Western sensibilities. How and why men and women make decisions is at the heart of this film’s tension; the central lie of the story would not have occurred in America, which makes it’s implications and fall out that much more fascinating to watch. The story is a bit slow to start while characters are established and the scene is set. However, once it get’s going, it is gripping until the end. In fact, the tension shifts suddenly in one of the best scenes I have seen on screen in a while. It starts with a loud bang, like a gunshot, that startles one of the women, only to be revealed to be a volleyball accidentally hitting the house. This misdirect sets the stage for a harrowing ocean scene that seems to last forever.  Just as it appears to be over and the audience (and characters) are catching our breaths, the real misdirect is brilliantly revealed and we’re off again. I cannot remember the last time I have seen a more effective use of building a roller coaster of tension; the whole scene was truly brilliant film making. It, like the rest of the film, suggests Farhadi is a film maker to watch.

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