REVIEW: Morris from America

17 08 2016

Morris from AmericaSundance Film Festival

Diversity. Representation. Inclusion.

If you follow the conversation about what movies get made and who gets to make them, these buzzwords probably sound all too familiar. As the expansive world of filmed content continues to strive towards matching the demographic makeup of America, the oft-repeated dictum of “write what you know” takes on a scrambled significance. Who gets to tell whose stories while we wait for more storytellers? Can any meaningful progress be made for the characters on-screen in the meantime?

Chad Hartigan’s “Morris from America” offers a ray of sunshine in this debate. His accomplishment suggests our chicken-or-egg mentality when thinking about these complex issues need not guide all discourse. The writer/director spent a portion of his childhood living abroad in Europe and started writing a coming-of-age tale in that milieu. But to differentiate his film from the herd of similar flicks in the subgenre, Hartigan decided to change the race of the main characters as a way of further exploring their alienation in foreign lands.

How refreshing to see that a filmmaker can produce a work that is at once wholly personal and entirely open to assuming other people’s vantage points. (A most welcome side effect: this process also rids the film of the narcissism and self-indulgence that plagues so many indies.) “Morris from America” does not feel exploitatively race-swapped to push a cheap metaphor or argue a naive colorblindness. It strikes an appropriate balance between familiar and unfamiliar as well as comforting and daring. In other words, it’s a lot like the contradictions that define being an adolescent as a whole.

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REVIEW: War Dogs

16 08 2016

War DogsIt takes about an hour into Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs” to realize the true colors of the film’s subjects. As they discuss a deal to arm Afghani soldiers with millions of bullets, top Army officials look across their table.

On the left is a man who possesses an everyman-style swagger, a sharp knack for business and a reservoir of nobility should he choose to tap into it. On his right is a man who seems to have little in the way of conscience or prudence, a cunning manipulator who cares little for the body count left in his wake so long as his bank account grows. And then beneath these pictures of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sit their respective counterparts in the film, actors Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli.

“War Dogs” is the Bush-Cheney partnership reimagined as a buddy comedy of hapless warmongering and reckless profit hunting. If ever there were an indication that the military-industrial complex had officially jumped the shark, it would be this story during this war. As a way to offset accusations of cronyism, the Pentagon set up an online database that allowed all contractors access to military deals. While industry giants still nabbed the biggest deals, Efraim’s business strategy stems from picking up the crumbs – “like a rat,” in his own words.

Phillips along with co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic would have us believe that the company Efraim lures David into partnering with him, AEY Inc., is the equivalent of the geniuses of “The Big Short” who spotted the leak in the mortgage market. (The film certainly features gratuitous grafts from Adam McKay’s stylistic masterstrokes to make the parallels, too – down to the freeze-frames and quotation-fronted chapter divisions.) But while Phillips may have that film on the brain, the dark heart of “War Dogs” bears a far greater resemblance to another film about fools who wrecked the economic futures of hard-working people.

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REVIEW: Hell or High Water

15 08 2016

Hell or High Water“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an eerily accurate graffiti tag on a West Texas building in the opening shot of “Hell or High Water.” The scrawled phrase of anger provides a fitting epigraph for the events to follow. Within the framework of the Western sheriff and bank robber folklore, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finds the ideal setting for an examination of post-recession fallout and the remnants of small towns left behind by the behemoth economic forces of urbanization and globalization.

Anxiety, even anger, over forces out of these humble folks’ control seeps into virtually every corner of the film. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a graying Texas Ranger, receives a Mandatory Retirement Notice in his first scene. A video surveillance system fails to capture a bank robbery because the management team has yet to fully make the change from VCR to digital recording. A farmer herding animals across a road frustratedly exclaims, “Wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living?” Everything in this provincial world seems on the verge of collapse at an accelerating rate.

And in the midst of all this turmoil, two estranged brothers unite for a spree of low-impact bank heists to pay off the ludicrous reverse mortgage their family was swindled into taking out on their farm. This “rob the rich” mentality has been rippling through American cinema in the years following the Occupy movement, but scarcely has it felt more poignant or less politically charged as it does in “Hell or High Water.” In a racket where bankers – those who men who “look like [they] could foreclose on a house” – rig the rules in their own interest, what hope is there besides throwing the system into disarray and tipping the scales in one’s own favor?

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REVIEW: Pete’s Dragon

14 08 2016

Disney has been trading on easy callbacks to their animated classics for the past half-decade or so, using new technologies to reiterate their well-established old stories. This style is valid, sure, but largely empty. From “Alice in Wonderland” to “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the Mouse House shortchanges the creation of childhood memories by pandering to adults (or at least older) viewers who already have such experiences.

With “Pete’s Dragon,” however, the studio takes a step in the right direction. Co-writer and director David Lowery, working with one of Disney’s lesser known archival properties, makes a more poignant homage to the iconic French short “The Red Balloon” than to the original 1977 film. It’s a glimpse of what these remakes can be when unyoked from nostalgia and blatant commercial pandering.

Lowery brings an elegant simplicity to this fairytale-like story involving a hairy green CGI dragon and the wilderness-dwelling orphan named Pete (Oakes Fegley) with a unique ability to corral the giant mythical creature. When a plucky park ranger, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace, stumbles upon Pete during a routine walkthrough, the discovery transforms his life by bringing him in contact with people once again.

But the beginnings of Pete’s reintegration into polite society also raises the possibility that others might find the dragon – and they might not possess the same magnanimity of spirit as Grace. When the dragon ultimately does become known to the small Pacific Northwestern town, his mysterious intent instantly divides the community into those who fear the unknown and those who have faith in its goodness.

“Pete’s Dragon” soars towards its powerful close as Lowery and writing partner Toby Halbrooks celebrate our capacity for belief. This ability need not be tethered to some childlike wonder; rather, it is an inherent quality accessible to anyone should they choose to do so. The film’s folksy, plucky spirit only underscores the authenticity of this yarn about listening, learning and loving. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Going Away

13 08 2016

Going AwayThe stakes are high in Nicole Garcia’s “Going Away.” A distraught, deadbeat mom (Louise Bourgoin’s Sandra) owes £50,000 to her creditors. Her child’s teacher (Pierre Rochefort’s Baptiste) arrives to drop off her son at this most inopportune moment, yet he also harbors secrets and shames of his own.

More importantly, he comes from a wealthy family in France who can easily supply enough money for Sandra’s financial woes. The problem is … Baptiste has to go and ask for it. The process of importuning the family for the money he previously then reopens old and contentious wounds.

The main plot of the film itself seems like more than enough to generate tension without even factoring in the complex paternal/professorial relationship between Baptiste and young Mathias. (Or his romantic entanglement with Sandra, for that matter.) Yet everything in “Going Away” feels undercooked and underplayed. It’s like watching a filmed outline for a French take on Tennessee Williams. The bare bones of conflict are there, but the meaty dialogue and action that really reveals character dynamics is largely absent. B-2stars





REVIEW: Ixcanul

12 08 2016

IxcanulThe opening shot of Jayo Bustamante’s “Ixcanul” shows the film’s protagonist, María (María Mercedes Coroy), acted upon. As her family dresses her in ceremonial garb for a courtship ritual, María’s eyes glance downward. It’s a moment she wants to escape, and she spends most of the movie on a journey to earn the agency to make a move for herself.

The sheltered Guatemalan girl growing up around the rim of a volcano (“Ixcanul” translates to “volcano”) in a tight-knit indigenous Kaqchikehl-speaking Mayan community. As likely as for any burgeoning woman, María receives a biological impulse to explore her own sexuality as her parents plan to marry her off to an older gentleman. In the fashion of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” she discovers some of her passion by enacting her romantic fantasies on an unwitting tree.

María’s discovery of her sexual drive lays to waste the best laid plans of her family as interactions with a friend more her age lead to a growing problem. The situation ultimately forces all of them to burst their regional bubble and encounter the country’s Spanish-speaking population, posing tough questions about their cultural isolation. Something is gained by remaining so deeply rooted in their Mayan heritage, though there is definitely something to be said for certain modern technologies and developments.

The specifics of “Ixcanul” may feel new to viewers unfamiliar with Central American identity, though the overarching themes are quite familiar. Bustamante makes the deliberations decently compelling in their own right, yet much of the film’s appeal seems derived from its novelty. B2halfstars





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

11 08 2016

Ain't Them Bodies SaintsWhen I first watched David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” my initial impression was that it amounted to one of the better spate of Malick-lite films spawned in the wake of “The Tree of Life.” Look for that and you’ll see all the hallmarks: floating camera, internal dialogue drifting through scenes, bucolic settings, deep contemplation.

But seeing that and only that misses all the film has to offer elsewhere. (To be fair, this probably was not a great movie to watch while jet-lagged after just arriving for a semester abroad in Europe.) “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is more than just an explosion of technical virtuosity from Lowery and director of photography Bradford Young, who has since gone on to lens such notable works as “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.” It is my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because its outer beauty helps expose the inner beauty of its epistolary love story.

At the core of the film is Rooney Mara’s steely Ruth Guthrie, a Texas woman caught between the man who stole her heart (Casey Affleck’s Bob Muldoon) and the officer who helped put Bob behind bars (Ben Foster’s Patrick Wheeler). Don’t call it a love triangle, though. Mara remains stone-faced as if she has erected the ultimate shield to mask her internal bewilderment over all that transpires. The choice ahead is one of great magnitude, and her strategy for coming to grips relies on downplaying her decision.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” does contain a storyline running parallel to its main plot involving Bob’s escape from prison and surreptitious journey back to reclaim Ruth. Affleck brings his usual grizzled intensity to the role, but make no mistake, the film is all Mara.








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