Multicultural Motherhood (REVIEWS: Fill the Void, Mother of George)

14 05 2017

For two years, I’ve been thinking of running this piece on Mother’s Day. And twice, I’ve put it off in favor of posting something else. The procrastination ends in 2017!

I watched Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void” and Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George” in short succession and was struck by some surprising parallels. Both are films that explore the complications of maternity outside of a dominant Western understanding but do so in wildly different – yet tellingly effective – ways.

“Fill the Void” unfolds in an orthodox Jewish community following the tragic death of Esther during childbirth. In the wake of her passing, Esther’s younger sister Shira (Hadas Yaron) faces a difficult choice. At 18, she has her whole life ahead of her and looks forward to an arranged marriage to a man she quite fancies. But the hole in the community demands her action, and Shira’s family comes to her with an unconventional plan: marry her former brother-in-law Yochay and raise her nephew Mordechai as she would a son.

The film’s tightly contained action and deliberation have the dimensions of a stage drama, yet Burshtein films it as anything but. She trains her director of photography Asaf Sudry to direct the lens towards Shira’s face, framing it tightly and making her internal tussle play out in prolonged close-ups. With this technique, Burshtein achieves that strange paradox of cinema: the film becomes more universal as it delves into the specifics of its insular community.

Mother of George” takes place on the opposite side of the world, in a Nigerian community nestled in Brooklyn. A newly married couple, Ayodele and Adenike Balogen (Issach de Bankolé and Danai Gurira), begins working towards building a family since expecting is the expectation for them. But their pregnancy journey hits a rocky patch primarily due to male-factor infertility from Ayodele. His patriarchal attitudes make him stubborn and reluctant to receive any kind of help since, in his mind, any impediment to conception comes from the female end.

Unlike the searing intimacy of “Fill the Void,” Andrew Dosunmu’s film takes a much wider look at his character’s struggles. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who has since shot “Selma,” received an Oscar nomination for “Arrival,” and is currently filming the Han Solo spinoff) uses long shots to reflect just how small Adenike feels in her time of anguish. Stricken by the seemingly arbitrary force of infertility, she’s left with few options – and one involves Ayodele’s brother.

So as we celebrate mothers today, in all shapes and forms, let us never forget the many paths that women can forge towards maternity. And, on the flip side, there are plenty of women who are not celebrating Mother’s Day but so desperately wish to be. Let us be understanding of their current standing not as a final destination, but rather just one point on their journey. Shaming women who do not follow conventional trajectories, whether by choice or by chance, helps no one.

REVIEW: Moonlight

13 02 2017

“Who is you, Chiron?” Characters pose this question – or, perhaps, exhortation – to the protagonist of “Moonlight” as he ages. It’s not exactly so much an inquiry in search of answer as it is an expression of confusion at the bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies before them.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins makes these divisions of the self apparent by showing Chiron at three unique stages of his development, portrayed by a different actor at each phase. All bear a different name as well. Alex Hibbert’s Little is the youngest, a boy who makes his earliest attempts to make sense of his emotions and environment in drug-riddled Miami. Ashton Sanders’ Chiron navigates the tricky straits of adolescence as a sensitive, withdrawn teenager with no real recourse or comfort. Trevante Rhodes’ Black swaggers about with the toughness of a man, but that confidence wilts away when standing in front of key figures from his past.

These are three personas, but how does one reconcile them into one consistent identity? Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, Naomie Harris’ Paula, certainly can’t. The closest thing he has to a friend, Kevin, only manages the occasional peep beyond the posturing and performance. And given the way that Jenkins structures the film, we as the audience are not meant to click these into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Making sense of a person is not this easy. There are gaps we cannot fill, thoughts we cannot know.

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REVIEW: The Secret Life of Pets

11 07 2016

Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment has been collecting plenty of money in the 2010s thanks to films like the “Despicable Me” series, but what is their identity? Prior to “The Secret Life of Pets,” the answer was unclear. Now, they might have found their answer.

Each prominent animation division has its strengths – Pixar’s is packaging adult themes into child-friendly tales; Disney Animation’s, charming with old-school fairy tale morality; DreamWorks’, creating parallel humor tracks for children and parents. Illumination feels well-positioned to capture a middle ground between all three, should they follow in the example of “The Secret Life of Pets.” And they definitely should.

The film feels like their “Toy Story” in many ways, and not just because the premise, story and characters feel so obviously indebted to Pixar’s debut feature. What that 1995 film did for toys in the chest, Illumination does for pets in the crate. Coming over twenty years later, their work might not feel nearly as ingenious, but it is still quite imaginative nonetheless.

Much like Woody was threatened by Andy bringing home Buzz, comfortable house dog Max (voice of Louis C.K.) feels endangered when his big-hearted owner rescues the lumbering stray Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. Rather than finding a way to coexist, the two wind up lost and endangered. Only for these conflict-riddled canines, the environment they must navigate is not a nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s the sprawling metropolis of New York City.

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REVIEW: Tikkun

11 06 2016

TikkunFantastic Fest, 2015

Tikkun” is a film so deeply rooted in an orthodox Jewish tradition that certain Hebrew terms discussed by the characters require parenthetical explanations. But, as has been said of many transcendent works before it, the universal comes from the specific. The experiences of one Hasidic family, as presented in frightening and fantastic detail by director Avishai Sivan, come to make vivid sense for anyone familiar with religious communities that impose strict asceticism.

Haim-Aron (Aharon Traitel), a scholar of the Torah, briefly departs the land of the living after an involuntary erection in the shower leads him to slip and fall. He eventually rejoins the world but begins to sense a rebellion of his physical nature against the spiritual one to which he committed. The body might have been created by God, but now it responds to chemical impulses that feel far from holy. These experiences alienate Haim-Aron both from his faith and from his

Sivan effectively toggles between the ultra-real and the surreal, depicting both the tedium of the Hasidic institutions and the haunting fantasies that come to grip Haim-Aron’s consciousness. Most of these take on the sense of dread akin to a Biblical curse – cockroaches squirming, lambs slaughtered, alligators in toilets, horses in the street, mantises at a doctor’s office. These stark visions might be more impressive discretely than “Tikkun” as a whole, although its cumulative effect is hard to shake. B+3stars

REVIEW: Warcraft

8 06 2016

A few years ago, I spent some weeks studying abroad in Argentina. I knew enough Spanish to converse and survive, though not nearly enough to where I could fully understand Spanish-language programming. On occasion, however, I would watch shows on television with my host mom that had no English subtitles.

Those shows made more sense than Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft.”

The film begins with an ominous prologue, foregrounding the conflict ahead by pointing to a period in time where humans and orcs became enemies. Then, speed ahead to the present day in “Warcraft,” and it feels like being dropped in part four of a series. Familiar scenes, discernible settings and recognizable powers abound, but none of them come with any kind of context or explanation.

In many ways, “Warcraft” is the antithesis of Jones’ last film, “Source Code” – a work of that disappearing breed of mid-range budgeted original sci-fi. That 2011 film derives from a high concept, and once again, he chooses to dole out precious little exposition to explain the world. Yet viewers could catch on because it was rooted in humanity and character. There was something intrinsic to pull us in.

“Warcraft” comes with no such hook, instead leaving in the cold those without an extensive knowledge of the MMORPG.  At least it kicked me off early, leaving me to watch a fast-moving carousel coming unhinged by the second. (Seriously, this makes M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” look like a paragon of narrative cohesion.) The film feels less like a movie and more like a YouTube playlist shuffling through deleted scenes of “Avatar,” “John Carter” and “The Hobbit.” While the effects – particularly motion-capture – look impressive, they mean jack squat with internal logic entirely absent.

All the money and technical wizardry on display is quite literally in service of nothing. Why spend $160 million on a spectacle of a fantasy film when production value is all that separates it from a direct-to-Redbox “Lord of the Rings” knockoff? The filmmaking team might as well have just pretended “Warcraft” took place in Middle Earth since they can never satisfactorily explain the tribes and the conflicts of this world.

Truly, the only people who can eke out a small victory from the film are the live-action performers such as Travis Fimmel, Ben Schnetzre, Dominic Cooper and Paula Patton. At least Universal’s marketing focused on the computer-generated creatures. They might be able to escape “Warcraft” relatively unscathed by what would otherwise by a substantial blemish on their careers. Everyone else, likely (and sadly) including Jones, is probably not so lucky. D-1star

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 11, 2016)

11 02 2016

I’ve made watching writer/director Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually” into somewhat of a December pastime, returning each year to remind myself that love is all around us, we are all perfect to someone and many more lessons. I should probably do the same with his latest film “About Time,” a love story that with less breadth but far more depth.

I don’t quite know or understand how the film got so overlooked when Universal released it in November 2013. (I was in London at the time, where the film was released earlier to a more solid commercial reception.) But this is Curtis at his most profound, offering not just a solid romantic yarn but a legitimately valuable guide on how to maximize happiness through life. Maybe in making it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I can will myself into heeding his advice more.

The film begins with a somewhat trite, if not completely hackneyed, premise: time travel. That tired plot device feels fresh when appropriated here by Curtis, who is far more interested in humanity than any of the mechanics. The men of the Lake family possess, somehow, the ability to travel back in time to places they have already been. Bill Nighy’s patriarch passes this information along to son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) on his 21st birthday and allows him to decide how best to deploy the gift.

Tim, who at the time has relatively few graces with the opposite sex, chooses to focus on love. Ultimately, it leads him to pin down the perfect woman for him, Rachel McAdams’ Mary. While his courtship of her is sweet and entertaining, the traditional romantic arc only forms a portion of “About Time.” Curtis goes far beyond the traditional stopping point of the first kiss, the wedding or the birth of a child, examining the manifold pains and pleasures of everyday adult life. “Happily ever after” rarely feels as earned or sincere as it does here.

The film confronts some of the core tenets of how we find contentment and satisfaction in life by offering a look at how someone with boundless time might approach them. By walking in Tim’s shoes for two hours, we get the chance to view time travel not as a means of correcting the past or preventing a future. Rather, we can see how this fanciful premise might allow us to enrich and enjoy the present.

REVIEW: A Lego Brickumentary

31 07 2015

A Lego BrickumentaryA Lego Brickumentary” gets part of its title by clever wordplay on the word “documentary,” appropriating about half of the letters it contains.  Fittingly, that roughly approximates the amount of content in the film that resembles non-fiction cinema.

As fun and engaging as the film might be to watch, directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge essentially do the bidding of the Lego brand.  This amounts to a shinily mounted piece of corporate propaganda, the kind of CNBC special that highlights the global reach and outreach of the company.  Lego comes across as a product deeply responsive to the needs and desires of its fans across all age groups – and, of course, the corporate social responsibility aspect gets trumpeted big time.

The film, with its friendly and funny narration provided by Jason Bateman in CGI Lego form, feels like it is not meant for consumption in the fashion of a normal documentary like “Citizenfour.” Discretely contained portions could play across multiple rooms at a Legoland exhibition, which may very well be its ultimate destination. (In which case, the feature format makes for a particularly egregious cash grab.)

But the puff piece elements notwithstanding, “A Lego Brickumentary” actually makes for pleasantly informative viewing. How people use the bricks for art, physics, and social connection proves very unexpected and fairly intriguing. Disentangling the reality from the corporate PR spin makes for a small concern, sure, yet getting to see how the Legos make such universal creative building blocks from geeks to math professors actually makes for quite an eye-opening watch.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: Jurassic World

13 06 2015

“We want to be thrilled,” declares Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire to a set of interested investors at the beginning of “Jurassic World.”  One can easily imagine the very green director Colin Trevorrow, with only the indie charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed” under his belt, making the same kind of pitch to the corporate powers that be at Universal.

In a manner that recalls “22 Jump Street,” many lines at the opening of the film give a winking nod to the entire enterprise of jumpstarting a dormant franchise for a new audience.  In the 22 years the original “Jurassic Park” film hit the multiplex, a new style of action filmmaking has obliterated the level of craft in the genre.  These blockbusters – think Michael Bay and “Transformers” – operate under the philosophy of bigger, louder, harder, faster, stronger.

These films have become predictable, boring, and numbing.  We still marvel at the screen, sure, but we have come to expect the unexpected and see the extraordinary as ordinary.  “Jurassic World” invites that childlike sense of awe to rear its head once again after hibernating.  And in true Spielberg fashion, we receive the invitation quite literally through the perspective of a child.

The first time Trevorrow gives his audience a peek at the new Jurassic Park, now rebranded as Jurassic World, it comes as the young Gray (Ty Simpkins) pushes his way through the crowd to get to the front of a tramcar.  He sees the giant entry gates, and the score by Michael Giacchino swells to the tune John Williams made iconic years ago.  In the succession of shots that follows, we see the many amazing dinosaur attractions (along with a plethora of corporate sponsors) and know his wide-eyed wonder is not misplaced.

The visual effects from “Jurassic Park” were impressive at the time, yet they now look a little creaky and dated.  I cannot imagine what technological advances could improve the look of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World,” which exhibit a breathtaking photorealism, though the CGI wizards will undeniably make me eat those words.

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INTERVIEW: Brett Haley, co-writer and director of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”

12 06 2015

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) has produced many a successful alumni from its film program: David Gordon Green, Jeff Nichols, Craig Zobel … and now, Brett Haley.  In the decade since his graduation in 2005, Haley’s had quite the wild ride – making short films, working as assistant to an established director, and cobbling together a debut feature on a few thousand.  Now, he’s garnering serious mainstream attention for his second film, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it found warm audience support as well as a distributor, the upstart new label Bleecker Street.  Prior to its May 15 release, the film hit the regional festival circuit hard; I got the chance to speak to Haley prior to a very special screening at his alma mater back in April.


Brett Haley (center)

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LISTFUL THINKING: Top 10 of 2014 (The Self-Aware One)

31 12 2014

Boyhood stillAnother year gone by, and what an odd and largely unremarkable one (at least for me).  That’s not to say, however, that there were not plenty of good movies to see.  Between two years – this and last – packed with film festivals as well as a summer living in Los Angels, I have racked up a shamefully high film count for 2014.

The final tally: 154.  That’s a gain of over 50% from just two years ago.  And, mind you, I still have many left to see, although only “Selma” and “American Sniper” would likely have ended up on this list.  Impressively, I have actually managed to review all of them (including one for “A Most Violent Year” which irksomely has to be held another month).

I usually try to tie my year-end top 10 list around a theme or a unifying idea, and this year is no different.  At the beginning of the month, my films were essentially set (sadly), but I could not for the life of me find a correlation or angle.  Then, I read a rather snarky piece by Anne Thompson of IndieWire called “How to Make a Ten Best List in Five Easy Steps.”

Thompson is a highly regarded entertainment reporter, and I value her insight on industry news that provides more thorough coverage than the click-bait titles.  At times, though, I find her writing contains a certain aura of superiority that verges on haughtiness.  In this reductionist list, which I believe is meant to be in jest to some degree, here are some of her suggestions for top 10 building:

“1. Include a selection of brainy consensus critical faves of the sort that are likely to be Oscar contenders.

2. Add a few popular hits as well to show that you click with the mainstream.

3. Add at least one wild blue yonder arcane title, either foreign or up-and-coming indie, that will leave readers scratching their heads, impressed with your erudition. This proves that you saw way more movies than they did.”

Pike Affleck Gone GirlI dismissed the piece at first, and then I told myself that such blind herd mentality was something to which I was not susceptible.  I don’t normally drink the Kool-Aid and tow the critics/bloggers party line – I picked “Win Win” and “The Queen of Versailles” as my favorites of their respective years, for heaven’s sake!

Yet I could not shake Thompson’s piece off, for whatever reason.  I kept thinking about it and realized that my top picks for the year might not match up with a ton of external validators, but they did meet a certain set of internal criteria.  As it turns out, I do have a couple of favorite “types” that rear their heads in my annual top 10 list.  These are not necessarily genres or styles of filmmaking so much as they are experiences.

So, without further ado, my extremely self-aware top 10 films of 2014.  I hope no one is incredibly offended by me reducing these films to merely what they meant to me, but if you want to read a pure assessment of their merits, click on the title to be taken to my original review.

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REVIEW: Red Army

14 11 2014

New York Film Festival

Cultural differences can manifest themselves in almost every activity. Most, however, presume a modicum of universality to sports – after all, what are the Olympic Games if not a union of the world around competition and athleticism? Gabe Polsky says otherwise in his documentary “Red Army,” a look at Russian hockey with an emphasis on the country’s turbulent ‘80s and ‘90s.

There is no allele that makes Russians more predisposed to hold court on the ice; like many attributes of any people, social forces heavily condition its expression. In the Soviet Union, hockey was more than a sport. It was an expression of their national ideals, particularly collectivism. Some of the clips in “Red Army” that feature their national team passing should honestly be used in business presentations on synergy. (Maybe the only other place five people act so efficiently like one being would be in a “Human Centipede” movie.)

Red Army

Polsky effectively shows how, for the Soviet Union, hockey not only encapsulated their society in microcosm but also how sport could become politics itself.  That journey is shown best by the film’s central personality, Slava Fetisov.  After being brought up in the Russian youth farm system for youth, he eventually earned the ultimate honor of a spot on their Olympic team (only to be on the other side of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”).  He also carries the distinction of being one of his country’s first defectors to capitalism on ice, or, as we call it in America, the National Hockey League.

Festiov, and “Red Army” as a whole, shows the best and the worst of the Russian tradition of collectivism.  He and his teammates, when at their highest function, translated the aesthetic beauty of the country’s Bolshoi ballet into athletic grace.  Yet such an emphasis on interdependence leaves them ill-equipped to mesh with the Western world and its individualistic style.  Russia’s political collapse coupled with the flight of its hockey stars really does result in a loss of national pride.  Thank goodness documentarians like Polsky are looking for these kinds of stories in less-than-obvious places.  B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 26, 2013)

26 07 2013

Some movies are truly once in a lifetime.  My pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Kevin MacDonald’s singular documentary “Life in a Day,” is one such picture.  It’s a film that may actually be able to merit the term universal as it attempts to capture not one shared experience but all worldwide collective experiences using the incredible democratic medium of YouTube.  (And camera crews were dispatched to less wired-in areas of the globe, for those of you concerned about underrepresented viewpoints.)

The experiment was simple: MacDonald and producer Ridley Scott asked people to submit whatever was happening in their lives to YouTube on Saturday, July 24, 2010.  I remember the promotion of the film being all over the site and nearly filmed something myself.  But for whatever reason, I ultimately chose not to, probably out of shame or fear or uncertainty.

Thankfully, there were tons of people who did not share my reservations and were willing to let the world see a little bit of their life.  The worldwide collage that MacDonald assembles is nothing short of earth-shattering as it encompasses as close to the full range of human experience as possible in an hour and a half.  He includes the ordinary and the extraordinary, the highest peaks and the lowest valleys, the big events and the small miracles.

In this catchall of global life, we the audience are renewed by observing how we are all so alike yet also so unique and distinct  We see how the act of recording can ascribe some sort of significance to just any other day.  Yet the miracle of “Life in a Day” is the way it also convinces us that just the act of living itself is significant in and of itself, and we ought to be proud to live each and every day.  A whole world of emotions and experiences awaits us when we wake up; it’s up to us, however, to give them meaning.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 19, 2013)

19 07 2013

Exporting RaymondIt’s all too easy to throw around the word universal; you can look and see I’m guilty of it myself.  While a nice idea, it is a little naive to assume that there can truly be an experience that unites the entire world.  It’s an especially tempting descriptor for comedies, which often play to broadly shared feelings to illicit the desired response.

But in my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Phil Rosenthal’s documentary “Exporting Raymond,” we get a hilarious crash-course in how great a cultural divide can be.  Rosenthal, the creator of the hit CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” takes us along for the ride as he advises Russian television personnel as they struggle to adapt his show for their market.  To his surprise, more has to be changed than just the language.

As creative staff and executives prepare “Voroniny” to hit the Russian small screen, Rosenthal finds himself explaining things about Ray Barone and his family that he took for granted as just being understood.  The entire way in which Americans enact concepts of family, gender, and power are foreign to the Russians.  Rosenthal finds himself in the precarious position of trying to maintain the integrity of “Everybody Loves Raymond” without setting it up for failure in the Russian marketplace.

For those like myself who found Ray’s antics quite relatable, “Exporting Raymond” is a gentle and well-meaning reminder that our response to his character is largely conditioned by the culture in which we watch him.  Rosenthal shows us how hard intercultural communication can be, but he ultimately demonstrates how valuable the additional understanding we gain really is.


1 11 2012

Every year, one movie speaks to a sense of now.  Whether intentionally (“Up in the Air“) or unintentionally (“The Artist“), their messages resonate with current concerns and taps powerfully into the zeitgeist.

I highly doubt that any movie in 2012 comes along and captures that spirit better than “Argo,” and if it does … then I’ll have to upload a picture of myself with a foot in my mouth to my Facebook page.  Some of the similarities to the current times could not have been foreseen, and no one wanted to foresee the tragic loss of four Americans to an attack on an overseas embassy.

Regardless, it happened, and it makes sure the immaculately constructed and taut opening that depicts the siege of the embassy in Tehran is viewed through an entirely different lens.  We think not only of the people trying to escape a volatile 1979 Iran but also of Ambassador Steven and his slain colleagues.  The painful coexistence of the now with the then is deeply unsettling, and it sets the tone for a movie that entertainingly and thrillingly historicizes the contemporary.

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REVIEW: The Hunt

30 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

I wasn’t invited to serve on Nanni Moretti’s jury this year, but if I had been, my vote for the Palme D’Or would have gone to Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” without question or hesitation.  More than any of the twelve competition films I saw, it captivated me from the outset and proceeded to shake me to my core all the way to its jarring ending.  Much like “In a Better World” or “The Class,” this film has the ability to play well in any country and in any language due to the universality of its story.

I quickly forgot I was reading subtitles as I got drawn into the film’s narrative.  Vinterberg’s film, which he also co-wrote with Tobias Lindholm, has echoes of Arthur Miller, one of the biggest compliments I can provide to a piece of writing.  This contemporary “Crucible” follows Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, a Danish kindergarten teacher, as he must fend off accusations of indecent exposure to a young child and the ensuing social stigmatization.  While Lucas is reserved, Mikkelsen never lets us doubt for a second that his character is an upright man who is merely the victim of a child’s curiosity being spun into something untrue.

And Mikkelsen, rightful and deserving winner of the Best Actor prize at Cannes, keeps our eyes glued to the screen as we watch the harrowing toll of these false charges on his psyche as well as his estranged son.  The story unfolds rather predictably for the first two acts (no thanks to Arthur Miller), but Mikkelsen really goes unhinged in the film’s finale and absolutely kills it.  As the metaphorically hunted of the film’s title, he begins to strike back against those who defiled his reputation based on baseless and circumstantial evidence.

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