REVIEW: He Named Me Malala

6 10 2015

He Named Me MalalaHad 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai stayed on the same life course as an average girl in the Swot Valley of Pakistan, she would already be a mother of two.  But thank goodness that the now-Nobel Laureate embraced her destiny as someone extraordinary.  Thanks to a new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, “He Named Me Malala,” her message of hope and equality can reach even more people.

Malala became an international icon when the Taliban occupiers of her town shot (and nearly killed) her for attempting to attend school.  For them, enlightened women threaten their orthodoxy, so this occupying force has attempted to relegate them to purely religious education that will reify their current gendered arrangement.  But by trying to silence Malala’s vocal opposition, the Taliban created a worldwide movement to guarantee the right for all children – especially girls – to receive the education they deserve.

Perhaps most extraordinary about the entire ordeal is that Malala bears no ill will or resentment towards her attackers.  (I, on the other hand, still carry a grudge towards the person who cut me off in traffic last week.)  To simply call her inspirational just does not even begin to explain the impact of her grace.  Personally, as someone who often grapples with how to reconcile their religious convictions with a concern for basic human decency, her effortless deployment of Islam’s tenets as a guiding force behind her compassionate worldview is truly moving.

Guggenheim also makes sure that “He Named Me Malala” does more than saint worship.  In some of the documentary’s most memorable moments, we can see Malala acting like any other teenager.  She giggles at Minion videos, struggles to feel accepted by her classmates, and gets bashful when talking about boys.  Feminist icon though she may be, the thought of asking a boy out still embarrasses her.

The film itself lacks some cohesion as it jumps erratically around to different times in Malala’s life.  Guggenheim relies on animated sequences to depict what would normally be portrayed as recreations, though the unconventional choice works just fine.  Ultimately, any structural quibbles are easily forgotten in the wake of a figure that can so easily bring out the common humanity in all of us.  Heck, she even got Queen Elizabeth II to smile!  B+3stars

REVIEW: The Walk

5 10 2015

“To be on the wire is life – the rest is waiting,” opines Joe Gideon at the start of Bob Fosse’s 1979 film “All That Jazz.”  That quote is attributed to Karl Wallenda, a circus performer who, ironically, died from a fall the year prior to that film’s release after a stunt performed with no net.  Yet after watching Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” Gideon’s words seem more in the spirit of Phillipe Petit, the wire-walker who traversed a cord strung between the Twin Towers in 1974.

Though structured like a standard heist flick – and providing all the expected thrills that should come along with the genre – the film is about more than just a clever plan or a physical accomplishment.  Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) similarly equates the wire with life, and his life is his art.  The “coup,” as he repeatedly refers to it, makes for a fun exercise, but the plot to hang a wire between the Twin Towers is merely the means to the end of his performance.

Perhaps those who do not wish to think much into his daring piece deride Petit’s walk as empty exhibtionism or some kind of stunt that prioritizes style over substance.  For this precise reason, he earns the sympathy and identification of co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis.

In “The Walk,” the subject and the storyteller are practically one and the same in their aesthetic philosophies.  Both view spectacle as a component of art, not its opponent. There’s a reason Zemeckis opts for a variation of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” as Petit glides along his wire as opposed to dramatic, triumphant underscoring. For these two artists, the purest beauty comes from achieving the previously unthinkable while operating at the highest of stakes (Petit with his a hundred-story height, Zemeckis with a hundred-million dollar budget).

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REVIEW: Sleeping With Other People

4 10 2015

Sleeping with Other PeopleThough the first two words in the title of writer/director Leslye Hedland’s “Sleeping With Other People” are a polite euphemism, that semantic choice probably represents her most cautious choice regarding sex.  Unlike so many others dealing with romance and courtship on screen, she leans in to the thorniness that most choose to sugarcoat.  She embraces the mess created by the libido’s interference with the heart.

Her two main characters, Jason Sudeikis’ Jake and Alison Brie’s Lainey, are even admitted sex addicts.  Early on in the film, the two even reunite after a collegiate one-night stand at a meeting for those struggling to rein in their urges.  “Shame” this is not, but it’s at least a more nuanced portrayal of sexuality than 2011’s pair of hookup movies, “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached.”

Yet sadly, Hedland also seems to borrow one too many plot points from said movies.  Even as she resists reducing love into sex, Jake and Lainey’s drifting back towards each other as they try to push apart feels like a page ripped right from the rom-com playbook.  There’s at least some good humor as Hedland blends in some battle of the sexes humor a la “When Harry Met Sally,” but Sudeikis and Brie lack the chemistry to sell their relationship beyond a few choice scenes.  The two always feel like they are operating on different comedic frequencies.

Despite a winning ensemble that includes fantastic actors like Adam Scott, Natasha Lyonne and Amanda Peet, “Sleeping With Other People” just never coheres its parts into a satisfying whole.  I suspect the only time I’ll ever think about this film again is when taking an overview of films that show how technology inhibits intimacy – Hedland does include one powerful split-screen shot of Jake and Lainey texting each other from their own beds.  Though they look and connect as if they were right next to each other, their phones still make them worlds apart.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Unfriended

3 10 2015

Movies – in particular the horror genre – are great at tapping into our digital anxieties, and “Unfriended” may very well be the ultimate representation to date.  The action unfolds entirely on a computer screen in real time over the course of roughly 85 minutes, following a group of teenagers who get terrorized by an online presence. This omnipotent force takes the name of a girl, Laura Barns, who everyone thought had committed suicide after some particularly vicious bullying.

Laura threatens them primarily with the disclosure of secrets that each individual kept from the group, usually of duplicitous or just plain malicious nature.  In particular, she uses the leverage from social media where images can be deleted but never really die.  If ever there was any doubt why teenagers are flocking to apps like Snapchat where images supposedly disappear, “Unfriended” has the answer.

Writer Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze execute the daring formal conceit well, even managing to throw in some interesting micro-observations about the way people communicate with divided attention and crossed alliances.  Yet no clever presentation can hide the fact that the story plays out like an episode of “Pretty Little Liars.”

At its core, “Unfriended” is still a bunch of whiny, obnoxious adolescents clawing at each other because of someone unknown, supernatural force.  The film is sure to make Laura some kind of technical wizard, able to control the computer’s mouse and rewire the Internet at will.  This makes her a little bit more frightening but a whole lot more ludicrous and unbelievable.

Still, “Unfriended” emerges as more positive than negative.  This feels like the best case scenario for the kinds of assembly-line horror movies cranked out overt at Jason Blum’s prolific Blumhouse Productions.  It’s entertaining and lowbrow enough to satisfy the lowest common denominator of moviegoers while also offering a little something to chew on for those who need a more existential terror to really scare them.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Finders Keepers

2 10 2015

Finders KeepersThe people who populate the documentary “Finders Keepers” might look like the people from a reality show in the rural South.  But if you hope for moments of YouTube-worthy laughs at their expense, look elsewhere.  Directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel are not interested in allowing the audience to look down at their subjects.

Instead, they request and allow empathy for folks who might otherwise get derided as a circus-like sideshow.  And given the dispute they document, this is a lofty task.  Small-town North Carolina dweller Shannon Whisnant just thought he bought a grill at a flea market, but when he opened it up, he also found a human foot.  To say he gets more than he bargained for is an understatement.

The foot is not just any human foot but one that belongs to a still-living person, John Wood, who ambles now with a prosthetic.  He wants the amputated limb back, though not for the reason anyone would expect.  Wood lost the foot in a plane crash that also took the life of his father, so it represents the last little bit of him that he can keep on earth.  For many filmmakers, this anecdote might be played for laughs or scorn.  In “Finders Keepers,” however, Wood’s story gets to play as sincere as he means it.

Whisnant does not oblige his request, invoking the legal concept of finders keepers and ginning up the kind of local broadcast publicity that would make any low-polling Republican presidential candidate green with envy.  Once the tussle gets settled (by Judge Mathis, no less), the rest of the film lacks the same level of intrigue.  Without the foot to drive a wedge between the principal personalities and represent a microcosm of their differences, Whisnant and Wood are not nearly as compelling to observe.  But the first hour of “Finders Keepers” deserves lauding for its relatively radical humanism towards people who usually receive little of it.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Hot Pursuit

25 09 2015

The easy insult to hurl at “Hot Pursuit” is that of a hot mess – because you know how us writers love wordplay, especially in movie titles that seem to invite clever barbs.  But in this case, such a label fails to describe what really goes wrong.

A hot mess implies there is something interesting or oddly compelling in its failure.  Anne Fletcher’s film could not be farther from that.  Within minutes, it becomes obvious that everyone involved just wants to play it safe.  And that makes for one wickedly boring 87 minute pursuit of mediocrity.

“Hot Pursuit” pits the formidable talents of Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara against each other but fails to realize either of their potential.  Vergara, as often seems to be the case, gets reduced to her looks and her naturally thick accent.  She plays Daniella Riva, the widow of a drug lord, who agrees to testify in a case against a kingpin.  But when her police transport goes haywire, she gets stuck with Witherspoon’s straight-laced cop Rose Cooper.

To get a frame of reference on Rose, imagine Tracy Flick levels of Type A behavior without all the self-confidence and a thick, put-on fake Texan accent.  (As a native Southern belle, Witherspoon could have just used her regular vocal cadence and no one would have batted an eyelid.)  I can see how maybe the star’s entourage thought “Hot Pursuit” might make for an interesting career move since Rose is a veritable man repeller.  For Witherspoon, who so often plays heroines forced to choose between two men, perhaps this character marks her attempt at subverting her own image?

She should just stick to “Wild,” though, as “Hot Pursuit” offers her nothing but a tired, predictable premise and one-note jokes.  The comedic pairing with Vergara yields disappointingly little heat.  For a fraction of the price tag, they could have just gone on talk shows together and gotten more laughs.  C2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 24, 2015)

24 09 2015

The epithet of “morality play” gets tossed around a lot when describing issues-based dramas – and usually in a negative connotation.  How dare a movie tell us what to believe, the undertone of their phrase rings out.  (Side note: these are often the same people who cry outrage when a film does not line up perfectly with their own worldview…)

But I believe the term can, and should, be applied positively to a movie if it offers provocative, challenging commentary on an ethical question.  Sam Raimi’s 1998 film “A Simple Plan,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” offers just such an experience.  Before he offered the be-all and end-all nugget of wisdom in “Spider-Man” – Uncle Ben’s “with great power comes great responsibility” – Raimi got down in the mud with human greed.  It should come as no surprise that we often fail to live up to that infamous aforementioned maxim.

“A Simple Plan” concerns morality in the aftermath of three buddies discovering a downed plane with $4 million inside.  The trio lives in rural Minnesota where the “rich” one of the bunch, Bill Paxton’s Hank Mitchell, works as a clerk at a feed mill.  Needless to say, they could all use some extra money and are willing to contemplate the dubious decision of keeping the cash.

As they debate the right course of action, their back-and-forth tussle somewhat resembles the expressive dialogue one might find in a play.  But never does the film take on the aura of superiority that one might associate with a preaching, instructive morality play.

So what differentiates it from the pack?  Credit director Sam Raimi, who smartly emphasizes the noir-like complexity in aspects of the story’s surprising turns.  Scripter Scott B. Smith also finds a simplicity in their internal tussles that resembles a parable, like the duffel bag of money is some kind of forbidden fruit that disrupts a moral universe.  These two sensibilities may sound clashing, but they harmonize masterfully in “A Simple Plan” – no doubt aided by the performances of Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob, Hank’s less educated sibling who harbors reserves of both resentment and nobility.


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