F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 2, 2015)

2 07 2015

The Color WheelMost people – well, most Americans – have a sibling.  So, naturally, sibling rivalry commonly appears as an aspect or subject in film.  This usually involves pairing off actors who scarcely know each other prior to the shoot and asking them to fill in a lifetime of close, personal experience with that person.  Almost inevitably, it feels forced and not entirely believable.

Alex Ross Perry’s “The Color Wheel,” on the other hand, might be the most convincing on-screen portrayal of siblings I have ever seen.  Perry not only directed the film, but also co-wrote it with his co-star Carlen Altman.  Every moment, every barb, every heartfelt appeal for approval struck a nerve with me.  Such seldom-found recognition makes this a perfect pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Perry’s naturalistic, grainy black & white film look nicely complements the raw emotional scabs being picked apart by the brother and sister at the heart of the film.  (Often times, those aesthetic choices just come across as showy and pretentious.)  Carlen Altman’s JR, an aspiring news anchor with exaggerated perceptions of her own talent, decides to make a move after breaking off a relationship with her former professor.  Since her prickly personality alienated most of her friends, JR has little recourse but her brother, Perry’s Colin, to help her make the journey.

I have taken many a long road trip in my day, and “The Color Wheel” captures the frustration and exhaustion that comes from the taxing mental tolls they exact.  After a long day of driving, patience is thin and emotional regulation is low.  JR and Colin trade really authentic and acerbic banter from either side of the center console.  Their digs wound deeply because siblings know each other perhaps better than anyone and can make brutally honest assessments of each other.  Every few minutes, I whispered to myself, “That’s something I might say to my brother.”

Family is a contact sport in “The Color Wheel,” both in terms of the pain of a tackle and the warmth of a hug.  JR and Carlen come to important realizations about where they need to move in their lives.  They see the disparity between how they present themselves to their peers and how they naturally act to a family member, which motivates them to make some changes.  Perry and Altman even prove willing to critique the narcissism that many accuse the so-called “mumblecore” movement of demonstrating so unabashedly, and the result is a film as enlightening as it is hilarious and frank.

REVIEW: Jimmy’s Hall

1 07 2015

Over a year ago, I rolled my eyes when I read that acclaimed British director Ken Loach called “to sack the critics and get ordinary punters in. People experienced, who know life.”  Now, after finally seeing “Jimmy’s Hall,” I can somewhat see his rationale.

His final film is an anthem to the hard-working, salt of the earth Ireland people who put in a hard day’s work and only request a fair wage as well as the ability to celebrate in joyous dance.  The titular hall, constructed by good old boy James “Jimmy” Gralton (Barry Ward), once served as a lynchpin of the small town of Leitrim.  After ten years exiled away in America, he returns to reopen the cultural center and restore a sense of community to the town torn apart by years of civil strife.

But, of course, it cannot be that simple.  The immensely powerful Irish Catholic Church stands steadfast in opposition to the hall, which wants to keep the impressionable youth away from any place apart from the church’s supervision and where they might receive a contradictory education.  (“Footloose,” is that you?)  Jimmy gets his name drug through the mud by one particularly malicious priest, who accuses him of the era’s catch-all phrase to drum up fear of suspect outsiders: communist.  This only leads to the small conflict simply growing in size and the sides further entrenching their interests.

Jimmy, practically a mouthpiece for Loach’s social democratic ideology, gets several opportunities to ascend a soapbox and deliver rousing sermons of his own.  His philosophy, highly formed by seeing the greed of the American Roaring Twenties usher in the Great Depression, simply calls for institutions to pay greater attention to the common people and lesser to themselves.  In these moments, “Jimmy’s Hall” proves decently rousing in spite of its preachy, conventional storytelling.  Loach’s calls for toleration, liberty, and justice feel pressing and relevant, even though it might serve more as a personal statement than an illumination on present-day issues.

Loach says that “by and large [reviewers] reflect their own perception through their hostility.”  While I do not necessarily attempt to say I am an exemplary human being or film reviewer, I can say that “Jimmy’s Hall” awakened the empathy within me.  Though I am not a member of the working class, the movie definitely made me think and feel a little more deeply about their concerns, both then and now.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: Hungry Hearts

30 06 2015

Hungry HeartsSaverio Costanzo’s “Hungry Hearts” pits two philosophies of child-rearing against each other to haunting effect.  After a meet-cute while trapped in the restroom of a Chinese restaurant, Adam Driver’s Jude and Alba Rohrwacher’s Mina begin a relationship that inadvertently spawns a child (and thus a marriage). Jude indulges some of his wife’s whims while pregnant, assuming she will return to a less heightened state of being once she delivers.

But Mina only firms in her resolve to practice unconventional and hyper-protective parenting once their child is born.  She wants the baby on a vegan diet and cannot bear the thought of him leaving the house and receiving exposure to the outside world’s toxicity.  After nine months protecting him in a womb, she feels the need to extend that shelter.  In other words, Mina is the kind of enlightened ignoramus who reads one email and decides not to vaccinate her child.

In theory, helicopter parenting has the best of intentions, but Jude sees its negative externalities whenever the baby appears malnourished and underweight.  Parenting quickly becomes a competition, not a collaboration, as Jude starts taking definitive steps to ensure the security of his offspring.  The claws come out as the couple manipulates the legal system to get their way with the child.

This duel of the fates feels so momentous because of the powerful acting of Adam Driver, who recalls vintage DeNiro in his releases of righteous aggression.  Many roles over the past three years have hinted at this pent-up rage, and “Hungry Hearts” finally provides the vessel for it to reach the surface.  Rohrwacher, while spookily compelling in her own right, far too often relies on playing an absent-minded fruit loop to really give her on-screen counterpart a run for his money.

Costanzo’s film mostly matches their intensity, though hints at a supernatural dimension like “Rosemary’s Baby” that he never intends to portray get a little frustrating.  His film is at its best when the camera, with shakiness and grain, captures the unbearable tension and claustrophobia between two radically different people tied together by the one thing that drives them apart.  B+3stars

Random Factoid #576

29 06 2015

Freshman year

I recently graduated from college, and I will miss it for a number of reasons.  But one I did not realize until recently was how much I am going to miss the easy dorm room decor.  For me, it was all as simple as a movie poster and some sticky tack.  Now, I am actually going to have to buy frames … maybe even ones that match the color of the poster or the room.

(You might be asking how on earth I got these posters, and I’ll tell you that I was lucky to have a connection with a promoter and an exhibitor.  But if you don’t have those contacts, never fear!  Many iconic posters that you may well have seen in homes, bedrooms and offices now that they’re readily available through services like Fast Print posters.)

The posters in my room rotated from year to year, although I sadly only have pictures of freshman and senior year.

In my first year of college, I came armed with posters for two films that had yet to open, “Moneyball” and “The Ides of March.”  After the latter fell short of lofty expectations, I took it down.  For some odd reason, I turned down one of my hall-mates’ offer to buy the “Moneyball” poster for $10.  Why was I so stupid?  That would have paid for the ticket!

By sophomore year, I turned to a different mix: “The Social Network” and “Hitchcock,” with smaller posters for “Les Misérables,” “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” and “Skyfall” adorning my radiator.  I mean, why have any white space?

I spent first semester of my junior year abroad in a dorm room where I was not allowed to hang anything on my walls.  That spirit, I suppose, came back home with me for second semester.  I hardly had any posters because most of them had torn and frayed from being well-loved.  When someone visited my room and saw the sparse decoration, they compared it to a prison cell.  I later added a “12 Years a Slave” poster, but that did little to alleviate things since it had a primarily white background.

Senior Year

Senior Year

Senior year, though, I went all out.  At one point, I had five 27×40 posters adorning the walls in my room, plus one in my closet and three smaller posters scattered throughout.  Oh, and a “22 Jump Street” poster in my suite common area.

The senior showcase included:

I only kept a few of these, knowing that the potential for them to actually hang in my apartment after graduation was slim.  Besides, I have much nicer framed Cannes Film Festival posters from my two years attending the event.

Movie posters served as a convenient expression of my taste in college, where no one cared if anything was ornate or fancy.  Now, I am going to have to step up my game to communicate the same thing about myself with pieces of paper that serve more as “art” than a piece of “marketing material.”

REVIEW: Far from the Madding Crowd

28 06 2015

All period films should feel as urgent as Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.”  Though the story might take place in Victorian England, none of the characters ever feel preserved in amber.  This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel illuminates present-day issues faced by women as they seek agency and independence through a heroine, Carey Mulligan’s Batsheba Everdene, who bristles with the norms of her time.

You would think, in the 140 years since the novel’s publication, that the world has progressed some in respecting the dignity of women.  But alas, two chauvinists sitting next to me served as a potent reminder of just how necessary this story continues to be.  In their eyes, any decision Batsheba made that did not lead her down a path of submission or domesticity evinced that she was a reckless whore.

Bathsheba never aligns herself as opposed to the institution of marriage; at one point, she memorably remarks that she would be a bride if she didn’t have to get a husband.  Her needs are rather peculiar due to a unique set of circumstances that grants her ownership of a sizable portion of land in the English countryside.  Rather than surrender the property to an able-bodied man, Bathsheba possesses enough self-confidence to run the farm herself.

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REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

27 06 2015

Me and EarlOn its face, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” amounts to a fairly simple calculation.  Jesse Andrews, adapting his own novel for the screen, takes the YA weepie “The Fault in Our Stars” and makes teen cancer more palatable by injecting a healthy dosage of hyper-mature, cinematically literate narration comparable to “Easy A.”

If someone asked me to quickly describe this movie, I would probably use some combination of the two movies listed above – and it would be a positive recommendation.  But, like any good movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is far more than just its sales pitch or just the sum of its influences.

For starters, the film features a vividly realized protagonist in Thomas Mann’s Greg Gaines.  I am still a little uneasy by the egocentric nature of the tale, especially given his interactions with Olivia Cooke’s Rachel Kushner, a classmate undergoing grueling treatment for leukemia.  But the more I reflect on the movie, the more I come to assume this was intended.  After all, “Me” does come first in the title.

Greg reminds me a lot of myself in high school, and I suspect anyone like me who takes the time to write out their thoughts about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will probably have some line to the same effect in their review.  He’s a droll, quick-witted teenage cinephile who would rather create and consume fabricated narratives than blaze one of his own.  Greg fashions himself as nothing more than a loser trying to quietly suffer beneath the cliques that dominate the high school hallways, though his detailed taxonomy of every social group demonstrates that he believes himself above them as well.

At first, I wondered why I had such a hard time connecting with Greg.  If he reminds me so much of myself, why should I not embrace this character with whom I so often nod in painful recognition?  Then, I made an important realization – maybe people like Greg (and, by extension, myself) are not the easiest to love.  Especially towards the end of the film, where I slowly stopped identifying with him, Greg begins drowning himself in a toxic combination of self-loathing and self-awareness.

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REVIEW: Escobar: Paradise Lost

26 06 2015

EscobarDespite what the title might imply, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is not really a film about Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  The name must have its roots in a marketing meeting because Benicio del Toro’s titular figure shows up about as often as Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

For the uninitiated, writer/director Andrea di Stefano provides a little more information about the drug lord than season 3 of “Entourage” can give.  In lightly sketched detail, Escobar’s appeal to the dispossessed in his country becomes a little more clear.  Whether willfully or naively, the film implies most Colombians remained in the dark about his lucrative illegal enterprises but were not asking questions so long as the money kept flowing.

The true protagonist of “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” Josh Hutcherson’s Canadian surfer bro Nick Brady, encapsulates this journey from tentative acceptance to fearful resistance.  Nick falls in love with Escobar’s niece while working in the forests near the Colombian beaches, and he graciously accepts an offer to work on the family farm rather than face harassment from armed thugs.  He suspects something might be awry with his relative and employer but remains silent, to his ultimate detriment.

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