REVIEW: Under the Shadow

6 01 2017

under-the-shadowBabak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow” would make for ideal viewing in the setting of a college seminar on horror films. It’s the kind of flick where personal and political anxieties are present, well-established and easily reflected in the monster that terrorizes the film. No academic text performing a close read to perhaps stretch the significance of certain elements is necessary to appreciate the deep connection between the real and the fantastic.

In the film, Narges Rashidi’s Shideh is haunted by the specter of her own feminism in 1988 Tehran. The activism of her student years in the wake of the Iranian Cultural Revolution becomes a liability as a dean prevents her from returning to finish her medical degree after taking a leave to mother her child. As if this setback were not enough, she must also contend with a brewing war between Iran and Iraq as well as a ghost in the household. This spirit threatens to uproot her position as the providing matriarch, exacerbates her feelings of guilt for her attempts to abandon traditional caregiving role.

In its brief 83 minutes, Anvari gives too much time goes to laying the groundwork and setting the stage – not enough to actually consummating the air for horror. Without foreshadowing or a more equitable distribution of scares, the last 20 minutes of “Under the Shadow” feel like an odd addendum rather than the fulfillment of the film’s promise. In this sense, the film’s ripe-for-analysis setup becomes a liability as well as a strength. B / 2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 5, 2017)

5 01 2017

old-joy“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” was one of the first movies to teach me that it’s entirely possible for characters to go on a journey and end up exactly where they started from, learning nothing. It’s an ending that has really stuck with me over the years, and I always admire filmmakers with the guts to acknowledge a fundamental truth about humans. We don’t always learn, adapt or change. We often times remain stubbornly ourselves.

Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film “Old Joy” is one such film that offers little in the way of optimism about human relationships. Two friends, careerist Mark (Daniel London) and nomadic Kurt (Will Oldham), head into the mountains to escape their lives and reconnect. They go through the motions in seeming expectation that something they see, do or experience will move them – or, at the very least, jolt them out of numbness. No such luck. Things happen, just as they do in everyday life. They are not transformed.

Meanwhile, on talk radio that’s simmering on car radios, we hear Bush-era talk about liberalism in exile and bemoaning the hopelessness of the moment. The action on screen is, of course, connected to the droning, disembodied voices. Everyone in Reichardt’s universe seems paralyzed by the seeming inability of our actions and desires to noticeably alter the reality we must face. So, in other words, no reason to dust this movie off now. Clearly just a relic of its mid-aughts moment. (*chuckle*)

REVIEW: Hidden Figures

4 01 2017

Hidden Figures” features three black female protagonists – or, rather, the film features what feels like a single protagonist with three different facets all fighting different incarnations of the same struggle. During the heat of the space race, this trio of women little known to history played a tremendous role in boosting the fortunes and morale of a nation that still treated them like second-class citizens.

The mathematical calculations of Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson helped ensure that John Glenn could orbit the earth safely, but she had to contend with institutional racism and sexism that hampered her performance. Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn learned how to work NASA’s first IBM computer, primarily because discriminatory hiring practices prevented her from traditional professional advancement. Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson became one of the agency’s most brilliant engineers, although in order to do so, she had to fight segregation in the courts to get the education she needed for the job.

While Henson might get the most screen time of the three – she’s the one whose romantic interests that writers Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder care to develop – the film really does feel like it possesses a set of co-leads. Their day-to-day struggles might be different, as are the people keeping them from reaching their full potential. Yet together, they provide each other with the strength to tear down the limitations holding them back: first within themselves, then in their workplace, and soon enough the world.

Even as “Hidden Figures” hews closer to the sentimentality of “The Help” than the strategizing of “Selma,” the film gives specificity and definition to each character. Though their hurdles might look the same, Melfi’s direction never allows them to become flattened out or treated as one in the same. The film could have foregone many scenes so obviously built around a vamp up to a Civil Rights-era declaration of humanity, but the cumulative effect of this inspiration and representation is tough to deny. These women were owed respect in their time, not only for their work but also for all they had to do in order to perform that work. It’s wonderful that the film brings their lives into the limelight. B+3stars


3 01 2017

towerIt’s hard to imagine a time when mass shootings were not a regular part of our national diet as Americans. Though I was shielded from the horrors of Columbine, ever since Virginia Tech, the country feels like it’s been on a treadmill of horrors. We even have a routine that’s so predictable that it can be satirized by The Onion.

Keith Maitland’s largely animated documentary “Tower” takes us back to 1966, when a shooter’s bullet did more than cause a momentary pause along with a call for thoughts and prayers. The film takes a look at how a sniper punctured the psyche of a town from his perch atop the bell tower at the University of Texas in Austin. It’s worth noting that the documentary has nothing to do with the shooter, whose name might not even be mentioned. Certainly his motivations are never analyzed, his actions never flimsily justified or excused. This is a film about the innocents he killed, the survivors he scarred, and the campus he changed.

“Tower” makes shootings shocking again by putting us in the shoes of those who experienced the day. Through the technique of rotoscoped animation, Maitland makes archival (and a smidgen of recreated) footage and audio feel vibrant and alive. He clears away the mothballs from history, making it feel both contemporary and immediate. We connect with the panic of experiencing what it feels like when violence feels appropriately senseless and unjust – almost like having to learn about your first mass shooting once more.

I very nearly ended after that last paragraph but stopped myself before publishing. This overview of the film sounded almost unspeakably grim. While Maitland does not shy away from the darkness, his embrace of small acts of courage and monumental acts of resilience reminded me of an all-time favorite quote from Mr. Rogers: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”  B+3stars

REVIEW: A Man Called Ove

2 01 2017

a-man-called-oveIf you are looking for a droll remake of “A Single Man” featuring a geriatric Swede … then you have very specific tastes, first off. You would also be in luck because that’s essentially what Hannes Holm’s “A Man Called Ove” is.

The titular downcast protagonist played by Rolf Lassgård is a downcast widower  who tries repeatedly to kill himself, only to end up finding more reasons to live. With his wife gone, he has few reasons to live except his job, which is of course trying to gently nudge him into retirement. He’s a model worker with an industrious devotion to his profession, and he now bemoans that “soon everyone in this country will be out to lunch.”

But the insular curmudgeon finds human connection with an immigrant from Iran, whose difficulty to adapt to local customs initially gives him a reason to get incensed. Without a workplace in which to enforce standards, he becomes a stickler for rule enforcement in his own neighborhood. Although when it comes to the kindly mother Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), Ove can step back and realize that her pain and isolation outmatches his own. The two slowly bond as he gets a new temporary lease on life.

If the beats sound familiar, that’s probably because they are. There is very little in Holm’s film that feels particularly original, especially not the forced flashbacks that provide a clear biography of the lead character. But if you just want a little bit of prickly cheer, then “A Man Called Ove” might just do the trick. B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 29, 2016)

29 12 2016

night-on-earthMy apologies to whichever friend or professor enlightened me with the following observation; I have to give credit because it is not my own. There’s a reason why so many heated, important conversations take place in cars. The automotive space is an inescapable one for its passengers, but the tableau where all seats face forward also allows confrontations to occur with an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Before HBO’s notorious “Taxicab Confessions” explored the taxi as a conversational space, there was Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.” This astutely observed and wryly humane dark comedy is an international omnibus exploring the unexpected connections that can be made across the divide between passenger and operator. The circumstances and the outcomes change with each successive city and set of characters, but the joy of observation remains unchanged throughout my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The segments of “Night on Earth” could easily have just amounted to a filmed version of a screenwriting challenge. (I recall one film school application I looked at requiring multiple scenes taking place in an elevator.) A shared setting may unite the vignettes, though little else does. Jarmusch begins in Los Angeles where Gena Rowlands’ wealthy passenger Victoria Snelling can never quite understand the aspirations of her driver, Winona Ryder’s Corky, to become a mechanic. He ends in Helsinki, where three ruffians allow themselves to be moved deeply by the plight of their driver. And just before that, a segment in Rome pits Roberto Benigni’s sexually frustrated cabbie against a horrified Catholic priest in a comedy reminiscent of early Woody Allen.

There’s no grand statement or thesis here. If there was, it would certainly be secondary to just taking in “Night on Earth” beat by beat with these characters. Both the journeys and the destinations are fascinating and surprising in equal measure.

REVIEW: Paterson

28 12 2016

patersonHouston Cinema Arts Festival

I suspect like many in the blogosphere, I write not for a living but because it gives me some purpose to my passion. There’s a tendency among those us who keep up such a habit to compartmentalize life into the daily, the mundane, that which pays the bills … and the time for doing what brings true, deep, intrinsic satisfaction. These dual spheres are seemingly always battling for influence, the ideal scenario being one where the time allotted to one’s avocation can supersede that given to their vocation.

With his latest narrative film “Paterson,” however, writer/director Jim Jarmusch envisions a different way. His subject, Adam Driver’s Paterson, is a bus driver by trade in the carcass of the old industrial town of Paterson, New Jersey. Not for a second do we pity what appears on the surface to be a humdrum existence. It’s the presence of a steady routine – his morning mosey to work, his regular route, his late night dog walks, his quiet evening grabbing drinks at the bar – that allows him the headspace to write great poetry. In the absence of disruption or chaos in his life, Paterson can easily nestle his calling within his career.

This does not mean that Paterson skips merrily to get behind the wheel each day. His face lights up at any occasion to discuss poetry or writing, and such animation is hardly ever visible when he dons a stoic expression to face down another day of his regular routine. Paterson does not so much resign himself to this fate as he makes peace with it, and 2016’s struggling artists in films from “La La Land” to “Don’t Think Twice” as well as “Maggie’s Plan” would be wise to take a page from his playbook. In his own way, he has found contentment and seems quite happy with it.

Foil that with Paterson’s girlfriend, Golshifteh Farahani’s warmly supportive Laura, who appears allergic to anything resembling order or stability in her schedule. “Paterson” follows a little over a week with these characters, and no day is ever the same for her. She’s always following a new whim or passion, never fully gratified by her last pursuit. She can create cute tchotchkes, perhaps, but she moves too fast to notice the vibrant life surrounding her. Thanks to Jarmusch’s understated but steady vantage point into their world, we get to notice the unexpected virtue of stability and the joy that comes from having the perception to notice the variations and deviations that break up the monotony. A-3halfstars