F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 12, 2014)

12 09 2014

True Adolescents

Though the world of a great movie may feel hermetically sealed while you watch it, all sorts of factors outside of it have decided the manner in which you get to experience it.  I’ve made the argument before that the 2008 financial collapse has infiltrated the content of films, yet it probably exerted an even greater influence by limiting our access to a whole world of independently created cinema.

Back in 2009, a small dramedy by Craig Johnson called “True Adolescents” played the SXSW Film Festival.  It was well-received and went on to play some smaller local festivals, but it sat around for three years waiting for theatrical distribution.  Before the economic malaise (or even now in our platform-agnostic present day), this is the kind of film that would be a no-brainer for a company like Fox Searchlight to pick up.  Due to the unfortunate timing of its release, however, it wound up getting a minuscule release thanks to Cinedigm.

Perhaps with “The Skeleton Twins,” Johnson’s second feature which is getting a much wider rollout courtesy of Roadside Attractions, people will begin to discover the joy of which they were robbed years ago.  While the production is small-scale, the film pays off big with its richly observed script and properly defined characters.

The man-child is getting a little tired thanks to brute repetition by Seth Rogen and friends, but it feels good as new in “True Adolescents” thanks to a very authentic incarnation by Mark Duplass.  His Sam has clearly blown past the twentysomething mark and is well into his thirties, hapless and essentially hopeless.

Hoping for some easy sympathy, he goes to crash with his aunt (played by a pre-Oscar win Melissa Leo) and winds up being forced to work for her charity.  Sam gets the distinct pleasure of taking his teenage cousin Oliver and his friend Jake on a camping trip.  I’m not too far removed from that adolescent mindset to know that it takes a special kind of person to handle boys of that age; suffice to say, Sam lacks the requisite saintliness.

As with any narrative centering around a journey in the great outdoors, an inner journey takes place in the characters.  But that’s pretty much where “True Adolescents” stops falling in line with what you expect it to do.  Writer/director Craig Johnson provides a surprising amount of depth within the familiar framework, opting to explore deeper into the complex characters at every turn where melodrama or clichés would be easier.  It’s a real treat to watch him embrace the true in the title of his film rather than the latter word.





REVIEW: Joe

11 09 2014

JoeDavid Gordon Green’s “Joe” gets off to a slow start, prompting me to initially wonder if it was going to be a complete non-starter like his prior directing effort “Prince Avalanche.”  He takes his time giving us the lay of the land and introducing us to the characters, a lax unraveling that teeters close to tedious.

It also doesn’t help that the premise feel quite similar to that of Green’s film school buddy Jeff Nichols’ recent success “Mud.”   A troubled man played by an actor looking to show off a more serious facet of his talent befriending a rough-hewn yet good-hearted teenager played by Tye Sheridan?  “Joe” feels like the younger brother of “Mud,” although perhaps only little due to the order in which it was released.

By all accounts, though, “Joe” is the better realized film.  It’s more emotionally charged and features more dynamic, complex characters.  Once Green kicked the film into gear around the 40-minute mark, I couldn’t take my eyes off the action.

After winning an Oscar, Nicolas Cage shouldn’t technically have to prove anything, so perhaps it’s best to say he reminds us that he is so much more than a meme.  As the eponymous ex-con Joe, he bares the bruises of his past with startling vulnerability.  While some might chuckle at the possibility of the same actor from the infamous “The Wicker Man” screaming video conveying a convincing paternal aura, Cage embodies and exudes a worn-down wisdom that feels completely authentic.

And Tye Sheridan as teenaged Gary, desperately in need of someone to look up to instead of his abusive alcoholic father, forges an entirely believable connection with Cage’s Joe.  Once again, Sheridan completely nails all the frustrations of adolescence.  He’s always remarkably in the moment on screen, which comes in handy when Green needs to communicate the urgency of the story.

We really feel the dire need for Gary to save his family before his father ruins it for good (credit the late Gary Poulter in an unhinged performance as the frighteningly destructive Wade).  Moreover, we see the need for Joe, flaws and all, to save the day.  It might take some time to reach that point, but “Joe” is worth watching for its gripping back half that leads up to an extremely intense conclusion.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Borgman

10 09 2014

BorgmanIn Alex van Warmerdam’s “Borgman,” a mysterious figure rises from underground to perniciously infiltrate the home of an upper-class Dutch family.  His name is Camiel Borgman, and he’s played by Jan Bijovet (looking like a bearded Christoph Waltz) with a sort of pleasant warmth that intoxicates yet harms.  And over the course of nearly two hours, he completely turns the tables on his marks.

We see that he insidiously disrupts the dynamics, but what we don’t get is quite how … or more importantly, we never really get a hint as to why he does this.  Perhaps there’s something culturally assumed in the Netherlands that I am simply losing in translation.  The film feels like a regional parable about the chickens coming home to roost for the ignorant wealthy, yet it’s lacking a certain punch to really drive home a message.

There seems to be an almost supernatural power that Borgman possesses, and I’ll give van Warmerdam credit for keeping this strange effect a rather understated facet of the character.  But without any sort of explanation or tip-off, “Borgman” feels a rather tedious and frustrating watch.

Furthermore, we’re never clued into the film’s internal logic.  It’s as if all the scenes that make the parts of “Borgman” cohere were removed in the editing room, leaving behind a movie that’s just smugly enigmatic.  van Warmerdam’s emotionally detached filmmaking style means that we’re not entering the film emotionally through the charaters.  We’re just observers, watching a steady simmer of a movie that never feels like it’s going to reach a boil.

“Borgman” has its fair share of memorable images (heads in buckets of cement, anyone?) as well a sizable enough body count to keep our curiosity.  But once it ends, we’re left with precious little to hold onto.  I’m not quite sure what I was supposed to take away from the film other than Alex van Warmerdam wanting me to think he’s Michael Haneke and this is his “Funny Games.”  He’s a cold, calculating filmmaker, but what exactly he wanted the parts of “Borgman” to add up to is beyond me.  C2stars





REVIEW: Ida

9 09 2014

IdaRiverRun International Film Festival

Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is most certainly going to be one of the most gorgeously shot films of the year when all is said and done in 2014.  Each black-and-white frame is composed with a striking incredible attention to detail that they feel worthy of commemorating in a textbook.

His choice of imagery, though, is rather one-note.  Pawlikowski loves placing the characters in the bottom third of the frame, their heads dwarfed and engulfed by their surroundings.  It’s often as if the characters are shot in proportion to their importance.  At some points in “Ida,” this fixation gets to the point where the subtitles have to be placed at the top of the screen instead of their customary resting place at the bottom.

Once we get the hang of the film’s visual language, it feels like we’ve taken cinema’s equivalent of an Ambien.  “Ida” is but 80 minutes, but I wondered if I would be 80 years old by the time it concluded.  (For those who don’t know, I’m 21.  Hopefully that metaphor makes a little more sense now.)  The cinematography is stunning, but it eventually is not enough to carry the snail-paced story of the film.

The characters lack the development to sustain the film as well.  The titular character, Ida, begins the film as a Polish nun in the 1960s who goes by Anna.  She was removed from her Jewish roots at an age too young to remember them but receives a rude awakening when her biological aunt Wanda reveals this hidden past.

Ida is too painfully stoic – think more stone-faced than Ryan Gosling in “Only God Forgives” – and Wanda is not nearly colorful enough to make the journey worth investing in.  Pawlikowski doesn’t initially make the purpose of their voyage evident, leading to frustration right out of the gate.  Everything’s in its right place in “Ida,” except maybe some storytelling fundamentals.  B- 2stars





REVIEW: The Imitation Game

8 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

As if the subject of “The Imitation Game” – a tender British soul misunderstood as an incompetent and bumbling fool – weren’t enough to draw comparisons to “The King’s Speech,” the film seemingly invites the parallel in its opening credits.  It’s only faintly discernible, but audio from none other than King George’s climactic speech at the dawn of World War II plays diegetically in the background.

To those who might recognize the snippet, it serves as a perfect barometer for the ambitions of “The Imitation Game.”  With maybe a dash of brash mathematical genius of “A Beautiful Mind,” Morten Tyldum’s film is very much this year’s “The King’s Speech.”  For those unaware of the construed meaning of 2010’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, that means the film is an engaging and entertaining biopic made with high production values all around yet does not aspire to anything groundbreaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Maybe I can only give such an unabashed endorsement of the film from my privileged subject position of being one of the first audiences to see the film or because I saw it before the glut of prestige films later in the fall.  Indeed, I can already see myself holding truly great movies against “The Imitation Game” and wondering how on earth anyone could think so highly of it.  At least for the moment, however, I choose to see the film as it is: a quality piece of cinema that is not trying to reinvent the wheel.  It’s simply trying to turn some wheels in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms.

Certainly a film has some merit if it can collapse a two-hour act of viewing into feeling like an experience lasting half that duration.  “The Imitation Game” flew by, largely because of how engrossed in the story and the characters I became.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns in inspired work bringing the film’s subject, Alan Turing, to life.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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REVIEW: The Look of Silence

7 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I was in eighth grade, I had the remarkable opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor recount his experiences surviving the cruelty of the Nazis.  After his speech was over and the whole room was crying, he stood at the front of the room and received hugs and other warm gestures from anyone who wished to embrace him.  No gesture of kindness could erase all the pain he endured, but it somehow felt like the only possible way to end the session.  The hug became a sort of promise to bear witness moving forward.

I had never seen anything like it again until I left my screening of “The Look of Silence” at the Telluride Film Festival, which the documentary’s protagonist, Adi Rukun, attended.  After a brief Q&A following the film, the crowd somberly filed out (appropriately, in silence).  And when the bright sunlight entered my eyes, I noticed a sight both moving and surprising: a queue had formed to embrace Adi.  One man seemed to clutch him firmly for well over a minute.

“The Look of Silence” is the kind of film that can inspire such a deep outpouring of emotion with its brutally pared-back power.

The Look of Silence

In the film, documentarian and humanitarian Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the subject of the 1960s Indonesian genocide that made him an Oscar nominee last year with “The Act of Killing.”  That film, as profound an impact as it had upon release, rubbed me the wrong way as it allowed (at least in my audience) repeated instances of laughter at the excesses of men who took joy in murdering large quantities of people.  “The Look of Silence,” its companion piece, thankfully operates under the appropriate sense of solemnity and reverence that is rightfully due to the victims of the extermination and their families.

The narrative journey Oppenheimer fashions in his second take on the subject is assuredly less flashy and entertaining.  It moves slowly and episodically towards its conclusion, never quite signaling where it will eventually deposit us.  “The Look of Silence” occasionally frustrates with its gentle, slow pacing, yet the periodically interspersed revelations more than redeem any plot sluggishness.

To elaborate on Adi’s travails in any great detail would only rob you of experiencing the intellectual and emotional impact of the film.  With Oppenheimer’s help, he embarks on a dangerous and painful quest for answers about the killing of his brother, Ramli, at the guns of a death squad.  What the two uncover is far more than just textbook examples of the social construction of morality or the banality of evil.

That the killers boast of their exploits is hardly news to anyone who saw “The Act of Killing,” but “The Look of Silence” still finds new ways to explore how that past continues to loom large over the present in Indonesia.  The perpetrators continue to perpetuate their revisionist narrative of history, not only by making ludicrous claims as “some of the communists wanted to be killed,” but also through more insidious means of controlling thought and expression.

Ultimately, the film is not about the killers, though; it is about Adi – and subsequently every other Indonesian citizen in his position.  Oppenheimer frequently circles back to a scene of Adi watching a video of two military men detailing how they committed Ramli’s murder.  The camera often lingers on his calm gaze, which contains so much more than merely the look of silence.  The same subterranean power gives haunting resonance to every moment in “The Look of Silence” on the whole.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Dancing Arabs

6 09 2014

Dancing ArabsTelluride Film Festival

Dancing Arabs” begins with some profound quote musing on the nature of identity that flashed on screen far too quickly for me to transcribe accurately.  But it seemed to foreshadow a profound discussion on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for that reason, I was quite intrigued.

What unfolds over the subsequent hour and 45 minutes never really fulfills the intellectual depth promised before the action even begins.  With the exception of a tacked-on, unearned conclusion, “Dancing Arabs” remains squarely in the realm of entertainment.  Any statement it tries to make about larger issues feels rather obvious or uninspired.

While the collaboration between Israeli director Eran Riklis and Palestinian screenwriter Sayed Kashua is certainly a commendable step towards reconciliation and understanding, their film does little to further their mission.  “Dancing Arabs” is a disjointed middlebrow drama, comprised of two essentially separate narratives tenuously tied together by a single character.  Riklis never provides any dramatic escalation, either, so the whole enterprise lands rather flatly.

The forbidden romance of protagonist Eyad, an Arab living within the state of Israel, with his Jewish schoolmate Naomi comes across as a slightly more serious retread of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  Their relationship dominates the first half of the film, and then “Dancing Arabs” inexplicably forgets Naomi nearly altogether.  The focus shifts towards Eyad and his friendship with muscular dystrophy-stricken Israeli teen Jonathan, whose deteriorating condition is not entirely bad news for Eyad.

Perhaps each would be more interesting or enlightening if given feature length to develop.  But their loose connection and juxtaposition makes for an dissatisfying union.  In the words of “Parks & Recreation” scene-stealer Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things.  Whole ass one thing.”  C+2stars








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