A pleasing throwback to an era in which ideas powered movies more than special effects, sci-fi action thriller In Time makes literal the scramble of underclass day-to-day existence, telling a story wherein everyone ages only to 25, and thereafter survives or perishes by trading on one year of allotted time, which is the currency of the world, and marked by a green countdown clock on their arm. Providing a steady flow of lively entertainment due in large part to the brain-tickling nature of its central conceit, the movie benefits from a superb below-the-line team that gives it a certain stylishness and nice production value, even though budgetary constraints obviously influence some set-ups. In Time only runs into trouble when attempting to service some of the
more whiz-bang elements of its fight-the-powers-that-be plot, instead of taking a honest swing at something more subversive or transgressive. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (20th Century Fox, PG-13, 109 minutes)
Topher Grace came of age on the small screen, in the hit sitcom That ’70s Show. Acting was never necessarily part of the grand plan when he was younger, however, so he’s leveraged the success of that experience into a more diverse portfolio on the big screen, dabbling in everything from action movies (Predators) and big-budget comic book adventures (Spider-Man 3) to political dramas (Too Big To Fail) and more offbeat dramedies (In Good Company). His new film is The Double, an espionage thriller in which he stars with Richard Gere, as an old-and-new pair of government operatives trying to track down a long-dormant but newly resurfaced Russian assassin. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a small press day with Grace, and ask him about his new movie, his affinity for filmic ensembles, and why he thinks babies hate him. The conversation is excerpted over at ShockYa, so click here for the read.
Based on the debut tome of gonzo novelist Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is sort of the filmic equivalent of an unexpected blast of jazz — an amusing slice of tropical noir beholden to little more than its own snappy rhythms. The movie is loosely built around a land-grab plot, but generally three parts soused character study to every one part awakened protagonist ambition, instead just perfectly happy to surf along on the strength of its enjoyably cracked characterizations and rich dialogue.
The story follows Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), an unhinged functional alcoholic and itinerant journalist who travels from New York City to Puerto Rico to write for a rundown local newspaper that even his new editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), admits is a shell of a publication, and likely to soon shutter. Making friends with a pair of coworkers that could be characterized as Drunk and Drunker (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi, respectively), Paul soon crosses paths with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a shady businessman who regards the island’s natural beauty as “God’s idea of money.” Sanderson pitches Paul a sort of “advertorial” deal to drum up phony public support for a massive property development scheme. Paul considers it, but complicating the newly felt pangs of this ethical dilemma is his growing infatuation with Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson’s scorching hot but hard-to-read fiancé. Are her flirtations true, or part of some set-up? And does Paul even care?
There’s a pungent aroma that comes off of The Rum Diary, capturing as it does this particular late-Eisenhower era of journalism, with cigarettes in the newsroom and flasks in every jacket pocket. It’s no surprise that the movie is also eminently quotable (“You have a tongue like an accusatory giblet!” rants Paul when he trips on an especially strong drug with a colleague), given that it represents the first film behind the camera in almost two decades from Withnail and I and How To Get Ahead in Advertising writer-director Bruce Robinson, who knows outrageousness well. If you miss the woozy, drunken charm of Depp’s turn in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, before its sequels became bloated special effects reels, this shot of Rum — hardly essential but still a lot of fun — will bring back pleasant memories. (Film District, R, 120 minutes)
It’s a shame more people won’t have the opportunity to see Martha Marcy May Marlene, the superb feature directorial debut of writer-director Sean Durkin, completely cold and not impacted by any marketing impressions. For no matter how good a job the crack publicity staff at Fox Searchlight does in highlighting its ethereal and eerie qualities (and the movie’s poster is very good at that), there’s a special add-on value to letting this film just kind of slowly wash over you, so unfussy and assured are its modes of expression.
In a star-making turn, Elizabeth Olsen portrays Martha (the other names come into play), a young woman who flees from a Catskills Mountains cult and its charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, fantastic), seeking refuge with her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their Connecticut summer home. Beset with paranoia and delusions, Martha refuses to open up about where she’s been the past couple years, though intercut segments fill the audience in on her time at the commune. Several instances of acting out make things awkward, and sisterly tensions eventually reach a boiling point, as Lucy and Ted have plans to start a family and feel they can’t do so while also tending to Martha.
Durkin’s film is characterized by spare production design and a muted color palette that echoes its lead’s emotional detachment. Martha is best when it stays away from more conventional domestic/familial conflict (a slightly overwritten blow-up regarding adult responsibility feels slipped in from the after-school special version of this same story), and instead slowly unfurls its back story, with tantalizing hints of Martha’s trauma and her and Lucy’s troubled shared past. The directing is superb, and Olsen’s performance a star-making turn; this is a gripping debut, with one of the eeriest, most ambiguous endings of the past couple years. See it with a friend — coffee and conversation is sure to follow. (Fox Searchight, R, 101 minutes)
Both individually and collectively, Americans may profess a desire for honesty, but the intrigue of serial deception — as a practiced tradecraft, and almost an art — makes compelling subject matter of state espionage, spies and double agents. So a movie like The Man Nobody Knew, a documentary about former Central Intelligence Agency head William Colby, directed by his son, Carl, would seem to offer a fantastic chance to explore the topic from a unique perspective, to richly plumb that different psychological and ethical space that trickery and lying on such a grand scale requires. Unfortunately, The Man Nobody Knew is neither fish nor fowl, and can’t get off the ground as either a unique familial memoir or a uniquely accessed view of recent world history.
Colby, wiry and discreet, began his career as an OSS officer, parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, working behind enemy lines to foster dissent and effect sabotage. Later, rising through the CIA, he helped sway elections against the Communist Party in Italy, and eventually ran the controversial Phoenix Program in Vietnam (tabbed as a “kill squad” by its detractors), which sparked today’s legacy of counter-insurgency. Colby is most well known, however, for defying the wishes of President Ford after rising to the rank of head of the CIA, and opening up to Congress about some of the international spy agency’s most tightly held “extra-legal” operations, including attempted assassinations and coup support in various countries around the world.
Despite the possessiveness of its title, and the way it clutches its now-deceased subject to its bosom, there’s a puzzling lack of commitment on the part of Colby to the personal quality of the narrative. Family photos are aplenty, and William’s long-time wife (the director’s mother) sits for several interviews, which are parceled out amidst much historical footage, and chats with other interviewees. But there are huge gaps in family history, and the filmmaker never never solicits the opinions of his siblings, which would have given the movie crucial, added dimension. Most problematically, though, Colby includes a mess of awkward first-person narration; it pops up at weird times, uncomfortably juxtaposed, and lacks the depth and honesty for which one yearns, since Colby never really wades into the breach and significantly discusses what he knew about his father and thought him to be doing at the time versus what he knows now.
This gives The Man Nobody Knew a quality of fitful engagement. At its core, Colby’s film is seemingly about the blinkered awakening of a conscience, and how his father, after Vietnam and President Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, felt the need to increase transparency, by degrees, while also safeguarding national secrets. This third act revelation, though, gets the bum’s rush at the expense of much historical set-up. Some of these passages — about Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.’s apparently singular role in the overthrow of Vietnam’s President Diem, for instance, three weeks before the eventual assassination of President Kennedy — are shocking, and newsworthy. But other stretches come off as staid, lackluster middle school filmstrips. And Colby, too, brooks no discussion about his father’s mysterious death. These shortcomings make for a movie that dances around intrigue, but never consistently engages it. In death, as in life, William Colby remains something of an enigma. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Act 4 Entertainment, unrated, 104 minutes)
The striking Like Crazy is saddled with an unfortunately innocuous name — the sort given to movies about teenagers ending in some sort of a dance competition — but that’s not terribly surprising since the film is about, well, a pair of perfectly and imperfectly matched young lovers dealing with pangs of separation and the gnawing, cold reality that the hot-burning flame of their relationship may not be a forever-type thing.
The Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie centers on Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones, in a breakthrough performance), who meet in Los Angeles at college and tumble into a romance. When the latter faces an expiring student visa set to pull her back home to England, it tosses a monkey wrench in their would-be summer of love. As is often the case in matters libidinal, Jacob and Anna throw caution to the wind. She stays, but then later, after slipping back to the U.K. for a cousin’s wedding, is barred from re-entry. Long-distance complications ensue, spanning a couple years.
Tender and bittersweet, Like Crazy is constructed in ways that invite an audience to impress upon the film its own memories and nostalgic feelings for that heady, hormonal surge of youthful attraction — meaning evocative framing choices, plenty of delicate, lingering close-ups, and, of course, montages. But there are nuances aplenty and the storytelling sensibility on display here by director Drake Doremus is finely tuned, and a big uptick from his previous outings, Spooner and Douchebag.
Yelchin and especially Jones, meanwhile, give sensitive and smart tightrope performances, and have a natural chemistry with one another that makes them a pleasure to watch. Like Crazy‘s ending is a perhaps willfully ambiguous thing, but also kind of nice insofar as it allows the movie to be a closed-loop romance for those seeking uplift, and a melancholic rumination from adulthood for those who are so sure they know better. (Paramount Vantage, PG-13, 89 minutes)
Not to suggest that the two are in any way equivalent, but wading through Afghanistan and Iraq war documentaries, whose prevalence and grip on the psyche of the fragile American indie filmmaker is evident at festivals across the nation, is often its own kind of special hell, because sub-par storytelling technique is so often brought to bear upon legitimately heartrending stories. The deserving winner of both jury documentary and cinematography awards in the World Cinema category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Hell and Back Again belies those notions that a nonfiction effort on the subject can’t be artistically minded, and also can’t somehow be as moving as (or even more so than) a scripted dramatic interpretation.
Photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis served as an embed with the U.S. Marines’ Echo Company 2nd Battalion in Southern Afghanistan in 2009. Footage from this time — visceral, smartly captured, on-the-ground reportage — is interspersed with homefront turbulence once 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris (above left) returns to North Carolina, where he confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with his occasionally overwhelmed wife, Ashley. The result is a powerful subjective experience, in which an audience is given rich and at times uncomfortable transport into the wounded body and mind of a typical American soldier.
The number of journalistic embeds in America’s last two wars has guaranteed that we don’t need to wait on Ridley or Tony Scott to convincingly get a taste of that Middle Eastern sand in our mouths. But so many of these documentaries seem informed by a certain videogame sensibility, in which both militaristic engagement and flipside mundanity are peddled for tension and tension alone. Dennis’ war tapes at first feel like unedited B-reel, but one slowly starts to recognize and come around to the brilliance of their physical and psychological framing, which eschews wildly swung hand-held camerawork and instead focuses largely on the sorts of tasks that even low-level grunts have to concern themselves with — reaching out, through a haze of uncertainty and cultural disconnect, and trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghan citizens.
Dennis also smartly comes at Harris as a subject somewhat elliptically, opting for naturalistic interplay between Nathan and Ashley — and others, including doctors and friends — instead of more direct question-and-answer interview segments. This gives Hell and Back Again a unique, earned intimacy; nothing about its dramatic connections are cheap, or overly manipulated. Masterfully edited in concert with Fiona Otway, the movie overlays shots and sound in a manner that truly means something, and affords glimpses into the fractured thinking of combat veterans. A dozen soldiers or more can talk about the feeling of wishing they were back in Iraq or Afghanistan, but when Dennis shows Harris gazing wistfully at a Call of Duty 4 sales case in Wal-Mart, and intercuts this and game-play footage with audio and other embed material from an Afghanistan raid, it powerfully illustrates the fundamental changes in brain activity and mental health that war generates. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. For more information about the movie, meanwhile, click here. (Docurama, unrated, 88 minutes)
Star Patton Oswalt will appear in person, along with Wonder Showzen creator/director Vernon Chatman, at a special screening of the twisted new satire The Heart, She Holler, at Cinefamily on Thursday, November 3 at 9 p.m. To view the trailer, and for more information, click here.
FX sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is sort of like Dijon mustard; it’s an acquired taste that certainly isn’t going to play well with a wide, mainstream audience. Myself, I’d heard raves from a couple friends whose opinions I don’t entirely distrust, so several years back I grabbed a couple episodes on TiVo and… nothing. I have little recollection of the specifics, but I just wasn’t feeling it. The series centered around a band of misfit/miscreant friends who gathered at the serially uninhabited Paddy’s Pub, and treated each other (and everyone else) pretty horribly. The tone struck me as at once spiteful and manic, and the comedy seemed forced — driven by doggedly persistent overlapping patter that augured a snappish screwball sensibility that really wasn’t there in the jokes.
And yet, some time later, I returned, maybe lured into giving it another chance by an off-season promo that favorably stacked up a bunch of clips. When I tried it again… well, I wasn’t hooked, per se, but I certainly did appreciate its wonked, preening and entirely narcissistic style of deadpan humor. I embraced and laughed at its outrageousness, some of it approaching the absurdist sensibility of a live-action South Park, only except with multiple Cartmans instead of just one. Especially brilliant was the episode D.E.N.N.I.S., in which Dennis (Glenn Howerton) presents and takes a bet regarding his sociopathic method of seducing vulnerable members of the opposite sex, only to find Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Frank (Danny DeVito) doing battle with their own systematic schemes to feast on his “sloppy seconds” (or thirds, as the case may be).
The Blu-ray version of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 6 collects a dozen episodes of this type of serial inappropriateness, including what has to be the season’s high point — an extended, unrated cut of Charlie (Charlie Day) and Mac’s self-financed production of Lethal Weapon 5 (don’t ask). Another highlight is definitely the gang’s quest to find out who knocked up Dee (Kaitlin Olson). Housed on 50GB dual layer discs stored in a standard Blu-ray snap-case, the two-disc set comes with a blooper reel, anarchic audio commentaries on select episodes, a clutch of deleted and extended scenes, special podcasts featuring Dennis and Dee, and a special “Flip Cup” trivia challenge. A DVD version is also available, but to purchase the Blu-ray version from Amazon, click here. B- (Show) B+ (Disc)
She’s played opposite a wide and diverse range of leading men, from Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Day-Lewis to Geoffrey Rush and Adam Sandler, and is equally at home in wrenching dramas or comedies of manners. It’s perhaps a testament to her talents, though, that Emily Watson remains just to the left of indistinctive for most mainstream audiences — not unexceptional or anonymous, but unable to be immediately placed. In her latest film, Watson again gives voice to another remarkable yet “ordinary” woman, starring in Oranges and Sunshine as Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker who in the 1980s uncovered a decades-long program of forced deportation/immigration which sent tens of thousands of children from England to Australia. I recently had a chance to speak to the Oscar-nominated actress, about her work on that film, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming War Horse, and the difficulties of juggling work and family. The conversation is excerpted over at ShockYa, so click here for the read.
Eminent plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), ever since his wife was horribly burned in a car crash, has been interested in creating a synthetic skin with which he could have saved her. After years of boundary-pushing research he finally cultivates an inflammable epidermis, and sets out to test it on a human guinea pig. Assisted by his longtime, live-in housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes), Ledgard painstakingly performs dozens if not hundreds of skin grafts on a mysterious woman (Elena Anaya), who’s clothed in tight tan body stockings and kept locked away in his Toledo mansion, not unlike Rapunzel. When Marilia’s estranged, fugitive son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) talks his way into Ledgard’s house, it sets in motion a chain of lethal events, which is then interspersed with material from six years earlier, shedding further light on the full nature of Ledgard’s personal tragedy with his wife and daughter.
The Skin I Live In is a movie at once artful and demented, the sort of blend one can’t imagine a lot of filmmakers attempting, let alone pulling off as engagingly as director Pedro Almodóvar does. Loosely based on a novella by Thierry Jonquet, Almodóvar and Banderas’ first teaming since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a little puzzle-box gem of clinically constructed perversity. Some might describe it as tonally schizophrenic or less than the sum of its calculated parts, perhaps feeling a bit tricked by being lured into a psychological horror film whose full-blown depravity takes a while to develop, like a Polaroid.
That criticism, however, doesn’t give due credit to Almodóvar’s orchestration. The filmmaker delivers twists but then toys with audience expectations, and more fully plumbs the psychology of said twists, in often uncomfortable ways, by taking them to warped, quasi-logical extremes. Many of the film’s commingled major themes are familiar — betrayal, loneliness, secrecy, vengeance, sexual identity and compulsion — but they are offset by Alberto Iglesias’ wonderful score, exquisite sets, and characteristically lush production design and costumes, all of which counterbalance the darkness of the material. The result is a Skin one can’t quite imagine anyone other than Almodóvar feeling quite as at ease in. (Sony Pictures Classics, R, 117 minutes)
Because he knows the subject matter well (err… horror films of a certain era, not frat houses or actual massacres, per se), it seemed like a good idea to give FOSD Telly Davidson a crack at reviewing Frat House Massacre. His take appears below:
There’s a popular if crude term for putting one’s guy friends above temporary, whiny girlfriends: “Bros before ‘hos!” In Synapse Films’ newly released “director’s cut” of Alex Pucci and screenwriter Draven Gonzalez’s micro-budget slasher Frat House Massacre, almost every character fits into one category or the other. And if nothing else, this picture definitely puts the “slash” in slasher.
As always with a late ’70s horror film (the movie is set in 1979), we start with a tragic “accident” that prefigures what later goes on. In this case, a car crash sends the slightly younger of two brothers, Bobby (Rane Jameson), into a chronic vegetative state — not needing life support, but comatose and non-responsive (a la Sunny von Bulow or Ariel Sharon) for months. Meanwhile, his brother Sean (Chris Prangley) is starting his college career, and tries to pledge to fraternity Delta Iota Epsilon, which he soon finds lives up to its nickname (as in D.I.E.), with horrific hazings and deadly basement initiation rites at the hands of status-conscious sadist frat prez Mark (Jon Fleming) and his creepy, ambiguously gay and voyeuristic sidekick, Tim (Andrew Giordiano). Strangely, no adult teacher or authority figure ever seems to notice the caravan missing student bodies from this Satan’s School for Boys.
Bobby and Sean’s parents died a few years earlier, though they’ve been looked after by a neighbor, a kind and caring black woman named Olivia (Georgia Gladden), who is like an island of dignity in these surroundings, and the only truly likeable character in the picture. After witnessing one hazing/initiation that went too far, Sean finds that he’s the next item up for bids on the incredible torture show. But just as he’s being killed, Bobby starts to awaken from his coma. Once recovered, Bobby starts school the next semester, and sure ‘nuf, suddenly some of the king bees of Delta Iota Epsilon start “DIE-ing “at the hands of a mysterious slasher. Could it be that Sean is the killer — possessing Bobby’s body to getting revenge on his own death? Has one of the frat boys turned on the others? Or is there an outside killer loose operating for past associations and motives of their own?
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud (or even Michael Musto) to see that this movie has a White Collar or Starsky & Hutch level of gay subtext (writer Gonzalez is a specialist in gay horror), with buff young men, shirtless and in skimpy underwear, being waterboarded, whipped, stabbed and beaten as other near-nekkid young guys root and cheer and beer-shower, when they aren’t masturbating while watching each other have sex with hot sorority chicks. (And really, how many men’s fraternities are “Deltas” instead of “Alphas”, anyway?)
Understandably, given its budget constraints, the movie has built-in limitations that could be forgiven if enough style and substance were present. The film’s bright (if low-fi) digital photography and videotape-like look is a sharp contrast to the grindhouse dinginess and $1.98 film processing of the drive-in days that the movie purports to tribute. While no one will ever confuse He Knows You’re Alone or Don’t Answer the Phone or Black Christmas with a Terrence Malick picture, those movies actually got some cinematic mileage out of their low budgets. Here, where everything is brightly lit and the Blair Witch handheld camera is the staple, it works against the film’s natural aesthetic.
More “fatally”, though, the movie doesn’t really know how to draw out any longstanding suspense, as we meander from one murder set-piece to the next. While the killings are brutal, they are a far cry from the shock suspense and clock-ticking Grand Guignol of the (big-budget) Saw/Seven/Bone Collector/Final Destination school of cinema. Even more to its fault, the film has no discernible ability to build prolonged suspense leading up to most of the killings. The movie practically announces each murder up front, and the victims are likewise “disposed with” in every sense of the word. Maybe the filmmakers thought that bumps in the night and shadows in the dark and obscene phone calls and other drawn-out tricks and treats were old hat — but then again, they are making a retro movie. Rent Halloween already!
The DVD features dual audio commentary tracks (one with Pucci and Gonzalez; the other with crew commentary, something which more big-budget movies would be uplifted by adding for the DVD), plus deleted scenes and a “making of” spot that conveys the real charm of this film and others like it — “Hey guys, let’s put on a slasher film!” Technical specs are 1.78:1 aspect ratio and Dolby digital 5.1 sound, in a typical Amray package. Music by Goblin veteran Claudio Simonetti adds some level of “giallo” cred (although nobody’s going to comfuse this one with Deep Red.) To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. D (Movie) B- (Disc)
A winning vocal performance by Antonio Banderas — a zesty, winking turn that jibes with the persona he has chosen to embrace especially for American audiences, that of an exotic, comedically accented “other” — anchors the swashbuckling animated family adventure Puss in Boots, a peppy, character-rooted romp that thankfully abandons some of the more frenzied and forced in-joke references of the Shrek series, which first introduced its main character.
Stylistically, Puss in Boots embraces some of Tex Avery’s manic sensibilities (a character leaving a shadow cut-out of himself when crashing through a barrier, for instance), and is cheekily self-aware without being postmodern; various chase sequences are superlative examples of action animation, meanwhile, goosed up even further by the movie’s stereoscopic 3-D presentation. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Paramount/DreamWorks, PG, 90 minutes)
For his narrative feature film debut, Oranges and Sunshine, director Jim Loach chose to tackle a sprawling tale of warped governmental policy, spanning three decades and involving the forced deportation of British kids to Australia. Almost as shocking as its narrative — which tells the story of literally tens of thousands of children, and the terrible abuses they suffered after in many cases being told that their parents were dead — is the fact that it is hardly known in the United States, where tales of adolescent mistreatment and murder are typically seized upon with a white-hot tabloid fervor, grist for the mill of the 24-hour cable news channels. I had the chance recently to speak to Loach one-on-one, about his movie, his leading lady Emily Watson and, yes, his famous filmmaker father. The conversation is excerpted over at ShockYa, so click here for the interview.
For the first six months of the year, renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria closes his tiny restaurant elBulli, overlooking Catalonia’s Costa Brava Bay, and works with his culinary team to prepare for the next season. (Or did — the amazing restaurant has now shuttered permanently, set to re-open in 2014 as only a culinary center and institute.) El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, a rather elegantly simplistic and hands-off exploration of food as avant-garde art, spotlights this unusual process, and cooks up all sorts of elemental yearnings in the tastebuds of viewers. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Alive Minda Cinema/Kino Lorber, unrated, 108 minutes)
Oranges and Sunshine is re-affirming evidence that not every remarkable true story a remarkable film makes. Based on the book Empty Cradles by British social worker Margaret Humphreys, the movie tells the story of its crusading subject, who worked to uncover one of the most shocking government-sanctioned scandals of modern times — the forced deportation of many thousands of children from the United Kingdom to Australia.
Both overall and scene-to-scene, though, the film exudes a just-fine feeling of dutiful emotional string-pulling, and nothing more. It commits no great and cringe-worthy offenses, but neither does it ever really get its hooks into an audience, and make them in a lasting way truly feel either the shock or heartbroken compassion its story should elicit. Mostly, though, Oranges and Sunshine is a “message movie” told in staid, blocky fashion, as if already edited down, content-wise, for a Hallmark-style TV presentation, and the lowest-common-denominator audience that medium occasionally implies. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Sony Pictures Classics, R, 105 minutes)
A documentary snapshot of the blurry, ever-evolving intersection of the relationship between technology and human bonds and grander societal development, Connected is wonderfully emblematic of the ways that intelligent artists can use the medium of film to explore issues and ask questions in a manner that encourages and bolsters a pleasantly unsettled life of exploration and outreach in the minds and hearts of viewers. Self-touted as “an autobiography about love, death and technology,” Tiffany Shlain‘s film is a deeply felt personal travelogue in the vein of Tom Shadyac’s similarly questioning I Am, in which the director set out (broadly speaking) to make sense of his feelings of emptiness in a material world. Part treatise, part psalm, part uncertain investigation, it elucidates and illuminates, imparting facts but never once a sense of holier-than-thou snootiness. Plain and simple, Connected connects, on multiple levels.
The founder of the Webby Awards, Shlain initially embarked upon the film as a more direct exploration of the effects of technology on our daily lives. Just as production was underway, however, she discovered both that she was pregnant with her second child, and that her father and would-be collaborator, surgeon and author Leonard Shlain, was diagnosed with brain cancer, and given only nine months to live. Undeterred, Shlain soldiered on, and incorporated elements of these unfolding events into her narrative, which, among other things, posits that both the advent of the alphabet during humankind’s development and increased literacy over-stimulated the left (more methodical, and traditionally male-associated) hemisphere of the human brain, and that the Internet has a tremendous capacity to synthesize the two hemispheres.
Connected benefits tremendously from Stefan Nadelman’s animation, which gives the film a spry liveliness, as well as the fact that Shlain (along with her credited co-writers) obviously took tremendous care in crafting the movie’s narration, which gives some credit to Peter Coyote but mostly leans on Shlain herself. In stitching together archival images from all sorts of eras and cultures with open-hearted monologues of a more personally-inflected nature, Connected deftly illustrates macro concepts in living, breathing and specifically private ways, and therefore the dependent nature of humankind — on both one another, and the world we inhabit.
Sometimes it alights upon a topic without quite enough set-up (the plight of the honeybees, for instance, already the subject of two other documentaries this year), and other times it misses chances to seemingly better highlight and underscore the often damaging manner in which societal and political problems are dealt with in isolation of one another. The film’s overriding aesthetic is one of hopefulness, though, and while so many other movies or books or speakers portend doom as it relates to technological advance and connection, Shlain’s film makes a fairly convincing case for the net positive effect of a world’s activated central nervous system. It sounds ridiculously simplistic to say, or perhaps faint praise, but at its core Connected is a very human film. It has a soul, and bristles with a hunger and intellectual vigor lacking in all but a small percentage of modern American films. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here; for more information on the movie itself visit the film’s official website, as well as its same-named Facebook page, where there are ongoing discussions about the many issues and ideas raised in the movie. For an interview with Shlain, meanwhile, click here. (Paladin/Moxie Institute, PG, 82 minutes)
Comedy is unshakably in the blood of writer-director Trent Cooper, whose latest film, the rangy ensemble farce Father of Invention, centers on a disgraced infomercial wizard, Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey), who gets out of prison and tries to start putting his life back together. Robert shacks up with his semi-estranged daughter (Camilla Belle) and her roommates, and gets a job working at a retail superstore, but finds his ex-wife (Virginia Madsen) remarried, and various attempts to secure start-up financing for a new idea stymied at every turn. I recently had a chance to talk one-on-one with Cooper, about his new movie, his feelings of warmth and affinity for Larry the Cable Guy, the debt of gratitude he owes Samuel L. Jackson, and, well, first names. The conversation is excerpted over at ShockYa, so click here for the quick, fun read.
Climate change documentaries are seemingly a dime a dozen, but the briskly paced Eye of the Future sets its sights on innovative measures to reduce our global carbon footprint, and additionally filters its discussion points through those that will eventually be in a position to enact such potential solutions — smart kids of today.
Directed by Catherine Cunningham, this 45-minute curated non-fiction flick charts five children of UN ambassadors who are called to imagine a new, sustainable future for a global society. The “questing” format and structure of the movie invites the sort of fantastical, participatory imagination most frequently found in the under-10 set, but there are factoids and other information here that older audiences can learn from as well. For general audiences there are better places to start, but for those invested in environmental issues and seeking to better explain their feelings to youngsters, this is a worthwhile movie.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Eye of the Future comes to DVD on a region-free disc, presented in 1.78:1 widescreen. Special features consist of a collection of reflections from global leaders, plus a clutch of entrepreneurial ideas bundled together in a featurette entitled “Rework the World.” For more information visit distributor Cinema Libre’s website, or click here; to purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. Eye of the Future is also available across various digital platforms. B- (Movie) C+ (Disc)
A heartfelt and well acted tale of sports underdog uplift, and a marginal recommendation for those interested in its subject matter, The Mighty Macs tells the true story of a driven women’s basketball coach who in the early 1970s turned tiny Immaculata College into a three-time national champion. Achingly familiar in its plotting, and evincing little ambition to stretch beyond its comfortably prescribed parameters of feel-good fortification, the film mainly serves as a nice showcase for Carla Gugino, as well as a piece of Title IX boosterism to remind viewers that sports aren’t some exclusive, birthright domain of just men. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Freestyle Releasing, G, 99 minutes)
For my latest DVD/Blu-ray column, over at ShockYa, I take a look at documentaries about dust (yes, dust!), urban farms, and Julian Assange and WikiLeaks; Maria Bello and Michael Sheen’s well-meaning Beautiful Boy; as well as the inherent falseness of a movie about a fat kid who wears continually pajamas to high school. Oh, and I also shine a light on which straight-to-video Samuel L. Jackson movie works in an Office Space in-joke. Again, it’s all over at ShockYa, so click here for the full, fun read.
Having one of the defining events of your life adapted into a major motion picture while you’re still alive (and working on those same issues) is weird, discombobulating stuff. Such is the case, though, for Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys, whose work in uncovering the forced deportation of thousands of British children is the basis for the new film Oranges and Sunshine, starring Emily Watson and directed by Jim Loach. Almost single-handedly, Humphreys brought authorities to account and drew worldwide attention to an extraordinary (and extraordinarily recent) miscarriage of justice, in which disadvantaged children as young as four years old were told that their parents were dead, and then sent to children’s homes in Australia, where many suffered appalling abuse. I recently had the chance to speak with Humphreys one-on-one, and the conversation is excerpted over at ShockYa.
Michael Shannon is a talented guy, and has smartly leveraged his Revolutionary Road Oscar nomination into the sort of paycheck-villain roles (battling Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, for instance) that will enable to him to keep making interesting indie projects, so it’s hard to get too bent out of shape over something like the Ohio-set psychological drama Take Shelter, a mannered, interesting failure about a father who might be losing his mind.
Sand-mining crew chief Curtis LaForche and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, making a push for 2011 ubiquitous “It Girl” status) have a modest but good life, even though their six-year-old daughter Hannah needs a cochlear implant. Plagued by violent dreams and visions which presage a coming storm, Curtis becomes convinced he must overhaul and restore the family’s underground shelter, casting into further doubt their already tenuous financial situation. To reveal more unnecessarily undercuts the movie’s slow-burn style, but it suffices to say that domestic arguments ensue and Curtis himself struggles with his actions, unsure whether or not he’s losing his grip on sanity.
Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nichols previously collaborated on 2008’s Shotgun Stories, and obviously have a rapport and mutual affection for one another which results in a film that never feels uncertain about its intentions, however coy and soft-peddled it is. The better, if manifestly less restrained, film in which to watch Shannon lose his mind, though, is 2007’s Bug, co-starring Ashley Judd. Despite Shannon’s Herculean efforts, Take Shelter is, put bluntly, not a movie that earns its two-hour running time.
Caught between trading in symbolism and narrative revelation, Nichols never finds a way to lift Hannah to the status of anything other than a dramatic marker, a pawn in Curtis’ plight. More problematically, though, about an hour in Nichols abandons the eerie manifestations of storms both real and imagined, which robs Take Shelter of the chance of accumulating a more pronounced sense of doom. When the last, proudly ambiguous note is struck, one leaves convinced only that there exists a greater exploitation of this same concept yet to be made, one with sharper contrasts and more starkly defined stakes. (Sony Pictures Classics, R, 120 minutes)
The word “Riverdance” isn’t really used, but that’s what the documentary Jig puts under the microscope — the story of the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, and specifically the leg-splaying competitions between certain youth subsets. To that end, there’s some absolutely fantastic talent on display in this ambling but only passably inquisitive nonfiction film, meaning that those inclined to like this sort of thing (those who might have a TiVo season pass for TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, say) will find in this plenty to like. General audiences, however, may feel a bit danced out.
Unfolding in the final months leading up to the aforementioned March,
2010, competition in Glasgow, Jig charts a number of highly
skilled young folk dancers — precious few of whom have any connection
to the rapid step-dancing genre’s link to Irish culture — and loosely
pairs off some of them who will eventually be competing against one
another. The film is comparable to but not quite as engaging as the
recent documentary Make Believe: The Battle To Become the World’s Best
Teen Magician. The subjects in Jig all put in and exhibit
an equal amount of hard work and dedication, but the latter movie has
significantly better guides, if you will, and a sharper focus. It
succeeds in eliciting information and perspectives from its young
would-be magicians, whereas most of Jig director Sue Bourne’s
interview chats, while perfectly amiable, are less revelatory.
They do less to connect the kids’ passion for dance to the different
ways it makes them feel, and how they see it eventually integrated into
their adult lives.
Watching excellence in almost any field, and
the pursuit of the same, can be a fortifying and rewarding experience.
And it’s certainly interesting to see the wide variety of personalities
(a group of Russians, an adopted Sri Lankan teen living in Holland)
drawn to this extremely difficult and competitive discipline, which
provides an unusual juxtaposition of grace and power in the stillness of
its dancers’ upper bodies and the machine-gun rhythms of their legs.
But Jig doesn’t spend a whole lot of time elucidating the
actual steps of Irish dance (perhaps by design, as one judge later
says it’s a highly subjective art form), and the movie unfurls as a haze
of practice and performance footage — again, frequently impressive —
with neither much contextual mooring nor ambition in staging. It’s just
kids dancing, and competing. Some eventually win, and some will lose —
as often happens in life
Housed in a complementary cardboard slipcover, Jig comes to Blu-ray presented in a superb 1080p transfer, and with a decent little clutch of supplemental bonus features. Director Bourne and eight-time world champion John Carey each provide feature-length audio commentary tracks. There are also bonus story segments, and a brief featurette on world-famous costume designer Gavin Doherty. Seventeen minutes of footage centers on the Dziak family from Chicago, and their six dancing kids — obviously an extra story strand that was discarded in editing. There’s also four minutes of footage from a movie-sponsored event to break the Guinness world’s record for most dancers doing the jig at the same time; it’s a piece of feel-good, successful boosterism (652 folks participate, of all ages and shapes), though I don’t know how I feel about the celebratory use of the word “jiggers” in the special shout-out of thanks. That’s a bit… unnerving. C+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)
If one could entirely banish certain ideas for scenes from the minds of all screenwriters, then surely on the top 10 list for such cinematic excommunication would be press conference confessionals, which at some point must have seemed really bold and original but by now almost without fail come across as lazy and pat — an entirely synthetic way to give an audience the feeling of a character-awakening conclusion without any of the heavy lifting that accompanies honest reflection. Such is the dispiriting end point for Father of Invention, a weird and fitfully fresh comedy with a name-heavy cast that almost methodically fumbles away a viewer’s engagement, leaving them instead with thoughts of what could have been.
Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey) is an ego-driven infomercial guru who made his fortune fabricating mash-up inventions that maximized “the atomic and molecular potential” of purchasers (think a pepper spray-camera hybrid, so that one could snap photos of their attacker). A class action lawsuit related to one of his products landed him in jail, though, and when he gets out eight years later his wife Lorraine (Virginia Madsen) is remarried to Jerry (Craig Robinson). Robert lands a retail job working at a wholesale discount store under the high-strung Troy Coangelo (Johnny Knoxville) and his semi-estranged daughter Claire (Camilla Belle), now 22, grants him a place to live, but Robert almost immediately butts heads with one of her roommates, lesbian gym teacher Phoebe (Heather Graham). Robert’s big dream is get back into business, however, so he starts hitting the pavement and trying to come up with partners and financial backers for a new idea. Will a return to some of his old habits, however, land him back in trouble?
Spacey is custom-built for a guy like Axle — half heart, and half ambitious huckster — and he anchors Father of Invention with aplomb. The other performances don’t always feel like they’re from the same movie, though, even though decent joke-writing gives the actors piecemeal opportunities to shine. Director Trent Cooper cycles through lots of set-ups (somewhat refreshingly, the movie isn’t afraid to haul in a new character or setting for a joke), but after a while the narrative just seems manic and unfocused. There are so many elements to serve — from father/daughter reconciliation and Jerry and Lorraine’s pending bankruptcy to an eventual thawing and flirtation between Robert and Phoebe and even the parental divorce of Claire’s other roommate — that Father of Invention takes on the quality of a high school term paper thrown together at the last minute, all unconnected facts and half-baked assertions.
Does the movie desire to be a wacky ensemble comedy? Does it want to be a comedic-leaning tale of familial redemption? Or is it more expressly about Robert’s professional journey? The filmmakers can’t decide, ultimately, so a viewer mostly stops caring. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Anchor Bay, PG-13, 93 minutes)