Showing posts with label 2013. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2013. Show all posts

December 1, 2014

We Are the Best! Review (Lucas Moodysson)

We Are the Best, directed by Lukas Moodyson

It’s easy to focus on the commercial side of making music. Bands form and become stars, and it’s their success that receives the attention. What’s forgotten is the joy in coming together and creating something new. Playing can be an outlet to cope with unfortunate situations at home, work, and beyond. Talent isn’t necessary if the connection is there within the group. This chemistry provides the heart for the trio of 13-year-old girls in Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!. Adapted from the graphic novel Never Goodnight by his wife Coco Moodysson, this charming film shows what music can bring to girls who don’t feel heard. They’re living in working-class Stockholm in 1982 and feel disconnected. Punk rock is the perfect outlet, assuming the guys will let them join the club.

Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) doesn’t resemble the typical punk fan; her short hair and shy demeanor make her nearly invisible. She wears glasses and has little interest in sports or other girls’ interests. Her single mom is busy partying with friends and trying to find romance with uncaring men. Bobo’s interest in punk is more than a way to be different. She sits on her bed with her headphones and connects both emotionally and intellectually to the music. Her best friend Klara (Mira Grosin) has the look and bigger personality that you might expect in a punk band. She doesn’t shy from telling off the jerks and has the bluster to be the lead singer. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t insecurities beneath the surface. Klara and Bobo are still young and figuring things out as they go.

The unlikely third member of the band is Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a religious girl who’s actually a great musician. A lesser movie would show her corruption through punk rock, but we’re in better hands with Moodyson. She gets a short haircut and loosens up, but Hedvig is still a good kid. Her personality meshes nicely with the brooding Bobo and energetic Klara. They have a long way to go as a band yet are just right as friends. Even when Hedvig’s mom tries to play hardball with Bobo and Klara, it doesn’t play out as expected. The girls share an interesting conversation about God, and it’s awkward and believable. They don't strike a false note and interact like you’d expect from young teens.

We Are the Best!

The three young actors have few prior credits, and that fresh perspective benefits the story. They’re young and uncertain in front of the camera, and that matches their characters’ behavior. That doesn’t mean they aren’t convincing, however. It just feels natural to see them on screen. Barkhammar is especially good as Bobo and has a tricky role with such an introverted character. Bobo is smart and has a high BS detector, even with friends. When she battles with Klara over a boy, Bobo finds a way to prove her worth even if it could hurt their friendship. The prize is hardly worth the effort; the guy likes punk but is just as bad as a sexist jock. Klara’s the louder member of their pair and grabs the attention, which makes Bobo feel less essential. They’re close friends and won’t stay mad for long, but introducing a rift shows that their relationship is still evolving as teens.

What makes this story click is the comedy, which shows many ways that people are stupid. Popular girls do a ridiculous dance in a talent show to The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”. Bobo and Klara are forced to play sports in gym class despite having no interest. The other band at the community center is a “serious” metal band hilariously named Iron Fist. Those guys receive all the attention from the adults at the center but lack originality. This isn’t a morose look at social outcasts and their challenges. The girls stand out because they aren’t followers, and that’s a threat. It’s inspiring to watch them build something with the band, even if the result is rough. That’s really the point of punk rock in the first place. It’s lo-fi and jagged, but there’s heart coming from the music. Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig are doing something that few others are doing, and their enjoyment is the real victory.

We Are the Best!

A major positive is the set design, which is filled with grays and browns. You can feel the cold air blowing off the screen. The girls’ homes feel lived in and cramped. A fun sequence has Klara’s dad and sister grabbing instruments and joining their rehearsals. What makes it work is the way they’re all crunched into the tight room. For anyone who’s lived in a small apartment or house, this feels right. Ulf Brantås’ cinematography finds moments of beauty within everyday settings. There’s a gorgeous shot of Klara and Bobo on a roof with the boy that finds elegance in the snow. Brantås works regularly with Moodyson, and he understands the director’s sensibilities. The story takes place in 1982, but Moodyson doesn’t overdo the period elements. There are subtle touches through fashions and music, but it's never obvious. Similar experiences could happen in any era.

Never Goodnight is an autobiographical tale for Coco, who was a young punk rocker in the early ‘80s. The personal connection is everywhere, and it’s no coincidence. Moodyson creates a unique story that doesn’t retell his wife’s experiences, but she provides the inspiration. Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig come to life and are genuine. When the girls perform in front of a small crowd in Västerås, the result seems just right. Where some might depict the moment as a failure, it’s a real triumph for the trio. Riding back home from the gig, they’re on top of the world. Their joy feels so deserved and ends the story on just the right note. The title seems just right for one of my favorite films of the year.

July 17, 2014

Young Filmmakers Marathon: Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler

Documenting a real-life event in a fictional film is a real challenge, especially when it’s such a recent moment. The 2008 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police in Oakland, California received national attention, so recreating the shooting isn’t enough. We need to see a unique perspective that gives more than the tragic side. Who was this guy? Does his story deserve attention when you go beyond his death? That’s the question that lingers around Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, which depicts the final day of Grant’s life. He goes about his day with no idea that his minutes are numbered. The audience has knowledge that Grant doesn’t possess, and that adds a portent to scenes that are fairly typical. When his mom tells him to take the train, she unknowingly sets the stage for the disaster. The question is whether moments like these really help with understanding Grant. There’s a risk in trying too hard to create a sense of foreboding when none should truly exist.

Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, a rising star who made his name in shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights and films like Chronicle. His performance drives the story and keeps us engaged because he doesn’t overdo the drama. Grant is just going through another day where he tries to get his job back and keep his girls happy. Coogler seems intent on showing that he isn’t a saint and doesn’t take much responsibility. His moves aren’t evil but can still do harm to his family if he isn’t careful. The conversation with his former boss tells us plenty about Grant’s outlook. Telling a guy that fired you that you’ll work hard rarely works, and threatening him is a terrible idea. Jordan brings humanity to Grant that isn’t on the page. A less charismatic actor would struggle to keep us on his side.

Melonie Diaz in Fruitvale Station

Despite Jordan’s success, there are scenes that veer into less subtle territory. At a gas station, Grant is a friendly with a dog. Moments later, the same dog is hit by a car. Watching him comfort the wounded animal is a blatant connection to his fate. It’s also a transparent way to connect us to Grant because he likes dogs. It’s a fairly brief scene, yet it leaves just the wrong impression in a movie designed to be natural. Coogler veers away from this approach several times, and those detours limit the effectiveness. They aren’t fatal issues, and the main reason is the work from Jordan and other actors. Octavia Spencer brings depth to Grant’s mom, and her presence adds more than what’s written.

Fruitvale Station is more interesting as a portrait of a young man than as a dissection of a tragic figure. The final act feels inevitable and is sad, yet it’s the least interesting part. The cops are one-dimensional guys high on adrenaline that overreact to a tricky situation. Kevin Durand (Lost) is the right man to play the tough officer. Is there any way for this guy not to look imposing? His face exudes menace towards anyone that stands up to his power. The joyous scenes on the train prior to the mess set it up well and convey the excitement of a night on the town. I’ve yet to mention Melonie Diaz as Sophina, who has the difficult task of being an obstacle for Grant. Even so, it’s clear that there’s love between the characters. We have to remember that they’re still really young and dealing with situations well beyond their years. They’re just hoping for a fun night out on the last day of the year.

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

I’ve spent a good amount of this piece harping on the issues with this film. Despite these concerns, it’s still an engaging debut from the 28-year-old writer/director. Coogler shows a lot of talent in conveying tricky material that could have easily drifted in more sentimental territory. There are scenes that connect too much to the ending, but the overall mood is right. We’re following around a guy who makes mistakes and isn’t perfect yet hardly deserves such a tragic end (who does?). Fruitvale Station is most notable for the arrival of Coogler and Jordan, who have very promising careers. I can’t wait to see where they go next, and their potential to shine is sky high after this interesting project.

July 7, 2014

Young Filmmakers Marathon: The Double (2013)

Jesse Eisenberg in The Double

It’s no secret that we put on different faces in the various aspects of daily life. I’m not the same guy at work that I am with friends. That’s doesn’t mean that we’re putting on a sham for co-workers. Instead, it gives a reminder that certain personality traits come out in each circumstance. In the right situation, even the most reserved person can feel like the life of the party. These moments could be fleeting, but they remind us that hidden beneath our normal tendencies is a separate person. This doppelganger may look like us, but the actions changes dramatically and generate completely different reactions from others. What if that person actually existed? Could we live in harmony with them? I expect that most of us would go mad by watching this less reserved person take charge of our lives. Richard Ayoade (Submarine) captures this scenario in his latest film The Double. Adapted from a Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, this mind-bending story offers no clear explanation and sends us headlong into the mouth of madness.

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is an awkward guy who can barely mutter a word in most social situations. He’s in love with his co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), yet he can’t even say a clear sentence to her. She lives next door, so Simon’s reduced to watching her creepily from a telescope through his window. Life is not good. The guard at the check-in desk never recognizes him, and he’s dropped off the list at a company party. The arrival of James Simon (his double) initially seems like a good thing. He gives Simon tips on being more outgoing and lets him masquerade as him on a date with Hannah. This excitement is short-lived. James has no scruples, and it’s really easy to make Simon do anything. When his life keeps getting worse, there may be only one escape route.

Mia Wasikowska in Richard Ayoade's The Double

Richard Ayaoade is only 37, but his movies bear the distinctive style of someone much further into their career. After building a solid resume as an actor on shows like The IT Crowd, he’s revealed good promise as a director. His debut Submarine breaks down in its final act, but its look and offbeat humor are distinctive. The Double inspires a claustrophobic feeling of a world gone mad that comes closest to Brazil. Even before James arrived, this office was hell. The sets don’t resemble anything in our world, and even the heating ducts seem alive. The excitement from this fresh environment drives the opening act before the plot even kicks into gear. This approach is going to alienate some viewers, however. A resistance to quirkiness may leave you scrambling for the exits.

It’s interesting to note how much the supporting characters lack personalities beyond their connections to Simon and James. Their boss Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) can’t even learn Simon’s name and loves James, and there’s little more to see. His daughter Melanie (Yasmin Page) is an angry teen with a one-note personality, and even Hannah’s emotions are controlled by her encounters with the two guys. Other characters feel like actors from The Truman Show and show little sympathy for anything that Simon says. He’s essentially living out a nightmare where no one understands his words or cares enough to consider their meaning. It’s a dark and dreary existence that just keeps getting worse.

Jesse Eisenberg in Richard Ayoade's The Double

There are challenges with caring for Simon because he’s such a non-entity; we don’t get the sense he’s about to break out of his shell. James is also such a jerk that he deserves whatever comes to him. Jesse Eisenberg is the right actor to play both roles because he can depict either side well. His looks would normally get him type cast as a dorky guy, and he’s played that role. On the other hand, Eisenberg can sell the arrogance of a know-it-all who realizes there are no intellectual competitors. That’s the reason he isn’t a bad choice to play Lex Luthor. Eisenberg does the heavy lifting in every scene, and it’s nearly a one man show for much of the story. Ayoade finds the right guy to sell a tricky premise that only works if we’re invested in reaching the conclusion. The resolution introduces new questions, but this never feels like a story that would have a closed ending. The mystery is secondary, and we can only guess about where Simon is heading with his fractured mind.

June 4, 2014

Her: The Power of Love in Any Form


Just a short while ago, the premise of a man falling in love with his operating system would seem like a fantasy. Given the recent technological advances and our attachment to devices, this premise doesn't feel so outlandish. During my years taking public transportation to work, I found that most people were lost in their smart phones, books, laptops, and iPods. This isn’t a criticism since my own behavior was right there with everyone else. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our universe and not take a moment to look beyond what’s right in front of us. I’ve caught myself feeling disconnected when my phone isn’t nearby, and it takes a conscious effort to remember it’s okay. This landscape makes the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her feel like just a future step in our evolution. The interesting part is that it’s presented not as something terrible but as an outlet for growth in a guy who’s lost his way.


A learning system that becomes more alive through interactions with a person is intriguing. They start out doing basic things like sorting e-mails and setting up the calendar and move into another realm entirely. A single ear piece gives us a connection with someone that’s solely focused on our needs. It’s pretty narcissistic when you think about it. The image of people gleefully chatting solo as they stroll down the street is frightening, but not in a Terminator way. This evolution doesn’t foretell the destruction of humanity by artificial intelligence. Instead, it shows the disconnected feelings that so many were experiencing prior to this technology. If having a computer voice along for the ride can make us happy, what does that say about our lives? Also, is it really a bad thing?

The surprising part is the way that Spike Jonze doesn’t make Theodore a creep who has lost touch with reality. When he takes Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) on a double date with his friends, it’s a little awkward but not ridiculous. Theodore’s lonely and socially awkward, but no more than a lot of people. He’s dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and maybe his bond with Samantha is exactly what he needs to escape his depression. It feels a lot more real than his blind date, where both participants feign more interest than what’s actually there. His phone sex call with a woman obsessed with cats is hardly more fulfilling. Samantha evolves because of her relationship with Theodore, so it’s hardly a one-sided relationship. Her programming is set up to support the user, but that’s only the beginning. Her improved understanding comes from him, but the possibilities are endless for her.


What makes Her so stunning is the gorgeous art direction and look. It could play with just the music and images and still shine for most of its running time. Sequences with Theodore strolling through town and talking with Samantha feel so vibrant and enhance the sense that he’s coming alive. The color palette is gorgeous and creates a world that’s unlike ours yet doesn’t feel over the top. That’s hardly an easy task. The score from the Arcade Fire connects perfectly with the mood set by Jonze and the entire production. It was refreshing to see the Oscar-nominated “The Moon Song” fit so nicely within the story. That sequence is magical, and I rarely use that type of hyperbole. We get the sense that we’re just flowing along with the characters in this relationship and aren’t sure where it will take us.

It’s surprising to note that Scarlett Johansson wasn’t the original choice, and Samantha Morton actually played the part of Samantha during initial filming. While there were some re-shoots, Joaquin Phoenix’s reactions come from Morton’s words and not Johansson’s. Given the chemistry that we feel between them, this is a startling revelation. So much of this film involves close-ups of Phoenix reacting to words from an unseen entity, and he never strikes a false note. I haven’t always loved his work in the past, but he deserves the acclaim. The same goes for Johansson, who was the right choice for this part. You can sense her emotions without a single glimpse of her face, and that’s an amazing feat.


It’s strange that I wasn’t that excited about seeing Her when it was released in theaters. It sounded more like a sad tale of a loner with nothing else, but that’s hardly the case. In fact, it’s Theodore’s connection with Samantha that gives him the confidence to have a possible chance with his friend Amy (Amy Adams). He also finally comes to term with his divorce, so the guy we see at the end is changed for the better. Samantha may have outgrown an individual connection with humans, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t leave an impact. Jonze has created a remarkable film that feels very relevant despite its sci-fi premise. It’s one of the great films of 2013 and deserves even more attention. Its ending feels like a rare victory for a character that deserves a lot more than a dreary existence.

April 23, 2014

Icons: Springsteen & I (2013)


If there was a way to design a movie directly for me, a collection of homemade fan videos about Bruce Springsteen would be high on the list. When you add those clips to exciting live footage from his extensive career, it pushes the project into the stratosphere. There’s little chance that I could analyze Springsteen & I like a normal movie. It would be impossible (and disingenuous) for me to separate my fandom and try to consider Baillie Walsh’s documentary in the normal fashion. Instead, I’d rather discuss it from the perspective of an avid fan that can’t get enough of Springsteen’s music. His resilience in a fickle industry has been remarkable, and he’s showing few signs of slowing down at age 64.

This film includes fan-made clips describing their experiences with the Boss and what’s attracted them to his music for so many years. A middle-aged guy breaks down in tears while even thinking about what those songs have meant to him. It’s clear that people are connecting with the music on a different level, and I can sympathize with that relationship. Men and women of all ages describe a personal bond with Springsteen despite never having met the guy. A young truck driver sees herself in his songs and takes inspiration that it’s okay to do the job she loves despite having a master’s degree. It’s easy to get cynical in the face of such heart, but there’s a genuine love within each participant. 

A connective part of each video is listing three words that describe Springsteen in the fan’s mind. While many cite his genuine demeanor and working-class roots, those wouldn’t make the cut for me. It’s true that his affable personality sells the music on a different level, but it’s impossible for me to know the true guy behind the image of “Bruce Springsteen”. My choices would be “relentless, powerful, and consistent”. What the studio cuts of his songs don’t convey is the ferocity that comes across in the live setting. The songs take on a life of their own, and that soul has developed so many hardcore fans. Some tread the line into obsessive territory, but there’s warmth that helps to mostly avoid that stigma. 


When I think back to my all-time favorite concerts, two from Springsteen would definitely make the list. I was a late arrival to the E Street train and didn’t become a huge fan until after the reunion tour in 2000. That interest was cemented in 2003 by an incredible show at Milwaukee's Miller Park. It was the second time I’d seen them on The Rising tour, and they had such a loose feeling near the end of that run. I had a similar experience in St. Louis near the conclusion of their Magic tour. They played nearly four hours, took many requests from crowd signs, and maintained the momentum throughout the show. Any band can play a long set, but few can keep the fans right there with them for the entire running time. It’s a skill that takes years to master and explains Springsteen’s continued relevance. 

Some of Springsteen & I’s highlights depict impromptu moments on stage that show why he’s charmed so many people. An Elvis impersonator known as “The King” recounts getting the chance to perform “All Shook Up” on stage with Springsteen in Philadelphia. We catch the video of this fun moment while he goes through the surreal feeling of actually singing with his idol. What makes this conversation special is the guy’s wife, who has so much pride in seeing him realize his dream. Another memorable story talks to a man who was dumped right before the concert. He channeled this sorrow into a sign to play “I’m Going Down” and ended up getting a hug on stage from Springsteen. This nightly connection with regular people may seem transparent and part of the act, but it feels surprisingly natural. 

Walsh was wise to include performances that energize the low-key home videos and give added relevance. A couple dances in their kitchen to “Radio Nowhere”, and then the perspective shifts to Springsteen playing the song to a stadium of fans. The older footage shows the rawer side of his work in the ‘70s when the E Street Band was coming alive. When combined with the more recent concerts, it presents a through line from the idealistic rocker to the giant we know today. One participant talks about the power of those early shows, when Springsteen wasn’t a giant face on a video screen. The audio recordings from the late ‘70s are truly remarkable and reveal such promise from a guy who took his shot and won. It’s fitting that the film closes with “Born to Run” with live clips from the past five decades. It may seem corny for everyone to return and thank Springsteen for his music, but that simple message connects so many of us. We’ve bonded at concerts and in our cars over the songs that just never seem to fade no matter where we are in life. Thank you, Bruce. 

April 18, 2014

Icons: The Punk Singer (2013)

Kathleen Hanna in The Punk Singer

When you label someone the voice of a movement, can they ever live up to expectations? Such was the case with Kathleen Hanna, who became the face of the “riot grrrl” scene while leading Bikini Kill in the ‘90s. Working alongside bands like Huggy Bear, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney, she helped to initiate the third wave of feminism in this country. That’s the basic history, but who’s the person behind that image? Director Sini Anderson tackles this question with The Punk Singer, a sincere documentary that does more than show why Hanna’s contribution was important to the scene. It reveals the complexities in the fiery demeanor, especially when a devastating illness ends her time in the spotlight.

Combining archival footage with more recent interviews, Anderson does an excellent job presenting the different stages of Hanna’s career. Music was the outlet for an artist with so much to say, yet it put her on the public stage as a target. It’s refreshing to see so many talented women participating in this project. We’re lacking typical guys like Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that appear in so many documentaries. Instead, pivotal artists like Kim Gordon, Corin Tucker, and Joan Jett give their impressions on Hanna’s work in the ‘90s and beyond. On the surface, she was just a punk singer, but her role became so much greater. It also riled up the male establishment and brought attacks from all corners of the spectrum.

The Punk Singer

The first hour focuses on Hanna’s time with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and spotlights the music without getting too rhapsodic. Concerts were rougher affairs at that point, and mosh pits were no joke at club shows. It wasn’t a hospitable place for most women, and Hanna wouldn’t stand for it. While her approach to bringing women to the front might seem obvious, that move was very rare. Beyond the hype, it’s the practical moves that stand out within the furor. This material works because we hear plenty of humble comments from Hanna about her experiences. The incisive stage presence of her younger days has given way to a committed yet much different persona. She’s grown up a lot in the past few decades, though the anger towards the divisive system remains as strong as ever.

There are few guys on screen in this film, and that choice makes this story more unique. One exception is Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz, whose stabilizing presence helps her through the difficult times. The section on their romance is really touching. Despite being a great match, the couple moved slowly because of the challenges for touring musicians. The Beastie Boys’ social consciousness has frequently been under reported, and some still equate them with the image of partying young guys from their first record. His presence is fairly limited in the movie, but their strong relationship comes through from those scenes. Horovitz shoots a harrowing moment of Hanna revealing the side effects from medicine to combat her Lyme disease. It’s hard to think of such a vibrant performer reduced to such a difficult state.

Kathleen Hanna in 2013's The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer was the first place where Hanna revealed the reason that she quit performing in 2005. She didn’t realize until five years later that she had contracted Lyme disease. This final segment is difficult but reveals the emotional core that drives the film. It does more than portray an artist's glorious past. Anderson and Hanna are using the film to come to terms with her illness. I’m typically fidgety when watching movies at home, but I was glued to the set during the last act. We observe a singer with so much energy reduced to a shell of her former self. Watching her take the stage again with The Julie Ruin is such an affirming moment. Plenty of challenges remain, but she’s on the path to a brighter future.

April 16, 2014

Icons: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

What is it about Walt Disney that keeps enthusiasts so enamored nearly 50 years after his passing? An obvious reason is Disneyland, which remains one of America’s cultural touchstones. When you combine that success with so many animated classics, it’s easy to see why the Disney Company remains so prominent. On the other hand, many of us were born well after Disney was gone. I’ve only seen videos of his TV programs, yet I’m intrigued by the guy. He was cantankerous and so powerful, yet he created the image of the friendly grandpa for the general public. That isn’t an easy feat, yet that persona remains in place today for a whole new generation of movie goers and theme park fans.

Given the continued interest in Disney, it’s surprising that he’s never been portrayed in a significant fictional film. One reason is how protective the Disney Company is about the face of their organization. Millions of visitors aren’t going to Disneyland because they love Bob Iger. This Icons marathon will give me the chance to look at different ways to view unique individuals of the past and present. In Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks plays Disney as the friendly public figure, but there are hints about the more forceful guy lurking beneath the surface. Despite what he says to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), his interest in adapting Mary Poppins isn’t just to fulfill a promise to his daughters. Disney sees the commercial potential for a hit yet faces an equally determined opponent every time he meets with her.

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.

Although Disney plays a key role, the real protagonist of this story is Travers. She may be opposing his plans to put her prized work on the big screen, but it’s hardly a one-sided affair. Travers has justifiable reasons to distrust Disney since her primary goal is protecting the source material. Once the movie hits it big, the image of Mary Poppins will always be Julie Andrews flying with an umbrella. She recognizes how signing her rights away would make it a much different tale than her book. There’s also a personal connection that goes back to her childhood in Australia. Her father has many similarities with her version of Mr. Banks, though his final destination wasn’t flying a kite and singing.

A surprising amount of the two-hour running time goes back to Travers’ young life with her dad, played warmly by Colin Farrell. He’s full of energy but can’t get out of his own way once alcohol enters the picture. These scenes are presented with such nostalgia but grow quite sad once the situation falls apart. Although they’re effective in explaining Travers’ standoffish behavior, they also feel overdone and make the relationship too obvious. It’s clear where the situation is going very quickly, and more time in California would add some mystery to the dilemma. There’s a sharp contrast between the movie studio and rural Australia, and that’s by design. Even so, the transitions don’t always flow so seamlessly.

Colin Farrell in Saving Mr. Banks

The depiction of the making of Mary Poppins at the Disney Studio is so lively, particularly when Bradley Whitford’s Don DaGradi joins Bob (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) plus Dolly (Melanie Paxson) to present the planned songs. This vision of California shows a bright and colorful place where artists create the magic. Travers isn’t so thrilled by the songs and fanciful inclusions, but her guard eventually recedes to the determined group. How can she resist “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”? The scene with Disney hearing the Shermans play “Feed the Birds” is also one of the best and does justice to his favorite song. Hanks plays the moment so well and shows the man behind all the bravado.

Hanks doesn’t resemble Disney, and it would take a more dedicated fan to comment on how close his mannerisms are accurate. What sells it is the feeling that Hanks embodies the emotional side of the complex guy. The coughs as he enters a room are legendary, and his stories will be familiar to passionate Disneyphiles. When Travers visits Disneyland, Disney’s clearly in his element in the second home that he loves. This sequence is a highlight for a Disney fan and offers a glimpse at its early heyday. Shot at the Anaheim park with some alterations to fit the time period, the fairly brief sequence is convincing.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) presents Saving Mr. Banks with such a glossy veneer that it may be too much for cynical viewers. Despite the conflicts with Travers and her tragic past, it’s meant to be an upbeat film that works for a large audience. Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith bypass some generic plotting and craft a film that also connects with the fan base. That’s no easy feat, and the cast is sharp across the board. We never doubt Hanks or Thompson’s work, and they raise the human stakes for both characters. It’s a down-the middle commercial project, but they bring heart to the story. There are no villains in this battle of wills, and the result of their collaboration was an iconic movie.

April 9, 2014

Thor: The Dark World - Fantasy Takes the Reins


If Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the ‘70s conspiracy thriller of the Marvel films, Thor: The Dark World is the syndicated action show. A good comparison is Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which frequently brought the title character into a fight with a giant monster. The creature would shout “HERCULES! I WILL DEFEAT YOU!” and then laugh maniacally. This would not end well for the baddie, and Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) would add a clever quip after securing another win. There’s an eerily similar moment near the start of the Thor sequel. The powerful hero is battling to secure the Nine Realms and faces a giant stone alien called a Kronan. The monster dwarfs Thor, but all it takes is a fast hammer swing to end the fight. The other enemies quickly disperse, and it’s played for a laugh. I expect that at least one of the film’s three young screen writers grew up watching Sorbo as Hercules.

Later in the story, the evil Dark Elves invade Asgard, and their vessels try to reach the stronghold. Despite higher production values, this has a similar feeling to a siege in Stargate Atlantis. A tenuous shield protects the base, and the heroes can do very little against the overwhelming forces of the nearly faceless enemies. I bring up these examples because there’s an inherent silliness within both Thor films. While the first grounded the story with the “fish out of water” comedy and love story on Earth, its sequel focuses more on the fantasy aspects of Asgard. The 10-year-old in me loves the idea of a Krull-like fantasy trip for Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but it feels out of place in the same universe as Captain America and Iron Man. That doesn’t mean it isn’t as worthy (all require a suspension of disbelief), but there are larger hurdles to overcome with accepting the silliness.

Thor: The Dark World – Directed by Alan Taylor; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, and Jamie Alexander


Another character actor has arrived to control Asgard. Colm Feore was the fierce hill giant king last time, and Chrstopher Eccleston becomes the more dangerous Dark Elf Malekith in this adventure. After playing Destro in the G.I. Joe adaptation, the Ninth Doctor is at risk of getting stuck in the power-hungry villain role in blockbusters. Tread carefully, Mr. Eccleston. Malekith’s plans also threaten Earth and Jane Watson (Natalie Portman), so the stakes are higher for the stoic hero. She’s been invaded by the Aether, a powerful force that risks a lot more than Jane’s life. Embodied by a shiny red parasite, it’s no joke for anyone who contacts it. With few options left, Thor needs his imprisoned brother to access the Dark World and save the universe. Loki’s biting wit masks a continued anger towards his brother and father, and it’s only a matter of time before he makes his move.

With its $170 million budget and visual effects, this sequel doubles down and tells a more ambitious story. The strange part is how simple it really is. Familiar faces like Sif, Heimdall, and Odin get a few scenes, but they’re merely bit players supporting Thor. There are complicated gravitational fields and other scientific phenomena, yet it all comes down to whether the hero can battle through the chaos and take down the villain. There’s nothing wrong with using a classic story; the challenge is making it seem relevant when there are so few surprises. It makes the fireworks feel like a smokescreen once the story comes together. The cast keeps the right attitude and has fun, particularly Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgård. However, they can only mask so much with their charms. Once the final fight starts rolling, there’s only so much excitement we can muster for it.


The Marvel films are based on comic books that are essentially male-dominated, so it’s easier to give them a pass for limited progress for women. That doesn’t lead to much discussion, however. When you look at Thor: The Dark World, it has determined female characters that are progressive on the surface. Watson is a scientist and extremely intelligent, and Sif is a powerful warrior that can hold her own. So what’s the issue? The concerns arrive because they still fall into the normal character types of so many films. Watson’s role in the story is to be the passive victim of the Aether and hope that Thor can save her. She may punch out a few people, but she’s the classic damsel in distress. Her role at the end of each story is to wait on Earth for Thor to come back and rekindle their romance. In a similar way, Sif’s hardened outside masks a love for her fellow Asgardian warrior. She’s an interesting character, but the least engaging part is her interest in the unobtainable Thor. Can’t she just be an unstoppable fighter without getting dragged into a barely seen love triangle?

The unstoppable train of Marvel success continued with the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier this past weekend. I’ve enjoyed all of their films in some way, though we’re starting to see more shakiness from a creative standpoint. Thor: The Dark World is not one of their stronger efforts, and a third film is certain a few years down the road. Will there be a tipping point where audiences take a pass on a Marvel release? I don’t see it coming in the near future, however. The general consensus of audiences and many critics was positive, and the box-office numbers are staggering. A charismatic cast and lots of visual effects can overcome generic plots and sell tickets, but it’s still a little disappointing. Take a few more chances, Marvel! The people will show up anyway. I’m hoping this is a glitch and not a trend, but only time will tell with the studio lining up the releases far into the future.

March 28, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Freedom Has a Price


It’s surprising to think back on the build up to the first Hunger Games movie and remember that it was hardly a surefire hit. The $78 million budget showed that Lionsgate saw potential but wasn’t ready to go all in and risk disaster. Jennifer Lawrence had received acclaim for Winter’s Bone and done well in X-Men: First Class, but leading a franchise was another matter. Given her current stardom, it’s easy to forget that the situation was much different two years ago. The success of this series and her work in The Silver Linings Playbook moved her into the stratosphere. By the time of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, there were few questions that it would become a massive success. The much higher budget and expanded universe helped to deliver one of 2013’s largest releases. Given the loftier expectations, could the sequel work creatively and do more than just earn gigantic profits for the studio?

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Directed by Francis Lawrence; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Sam Claflin, and Jeffrey Wright

The prevailing question that hangs over any high-profile adaptation is how faithfully it adheres to the books. This is a boring discussion unless you’re a super fan. I’ve read the Suzanne Collins novels but am hardly an expert. The more important subject is how the story translates into the visual medium. This action-packed adventure is tailor-made for the screen. Even so, we don’t benefit from having Katniss’ thoughts in the movies. That puts more pressure on the supporting players to be interesting characters. Some actors expand the parts and make them come to life (Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Jena Malone), while others still feel like one-note figures (Liam Hemsworth’s Gale).


It’s easy to deride the 146-minute running time, but this story feels big enough to handle it. In fact, the Games during the final act seem rushed and could use even more time. It’s a challenge to match the books’ intensity, but Director Francis Lawrence does a solid job. The locations feel claustrophobic when the artificial creations appear, but there’s a vastness that keeps them epic. Lawrence (I Am Legend) uses long shots to show the expanded space and just how small the players are in this setting. The “clock” at the center of the field is stunning and lacks the artificiality of many CGI creations. When Katniss rises into the arena and stands on a perch above the water, we’re right with her in experiencing the initial panic.

The most interesting section is the first hour, which creates a sense of dread about the impending rebellion. Katniss and Peeta did the impossible and survived the Games, but it’s hardly a happy victory tour. When a man in District 11 leads the onlookers with symbols of the resistance, he’s murdered without a second thought. Despite the Peacekeepers’ silly outfits, there’s a real sense of danger when they arrive. When Commander Thread (Patrick St. Espirit) arrives in District 12, he’s just itching for someone to stand up to him so he can whip them into submission. Gale is just the man for the job. These scenes undercut the victories from the first movie and remind us that Katniss still has many obstacles in her way. The forces in power for 75 years will do anything to maintain their grasp. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is just looking for a reason to remove Katniss from the equation.


With each successive book, Collins grew more confident in showing the nasty behavior of the decadent Capitol. We receive more glimpses this time at people so affluent they take pills to throw up and eat more food. You could easily make the leap that it’s a thinly veiled attack on the rich in this country. They care little about what’s happening beyond their walls, and that’s just the way the government wants it. Collins’ father was in the Air Force, so her background includes some understanding about war and conflict. Heroes like Katniss function as symbols driving the populace to stand up the oppressors, but what are the costs? The end of this movie reveals that negative ramifications are inevitable.

Catching Fire has the challenge of being a middle chapter in an ongoing story without a clear ending. The final outcome of this edition of the Games will surprise viewers unfamiliar with the books and might feel hollow. It also could ramp up expectations for the two movies coming from the final book Mockingjay. Similar to the end of The Two Towers, this conclusion sets the stage for the greater stakes to come. There are less convincing moments, particularly with the love triangle of Katniss with Gale and Peeta. I’m not that concerned with either guy and am glad it doesn’t occupy too much time. Josh Hutcherson brings out the genuine side of Peeta, yet the character just isn’t that interesting. Would we really lose that much if both men were dead? It would raise the stakes for Katniss, but I’m unsure if it would take that much away from the overall product. Thankfully, the romance takes a back seat to the predominant struggle, which has quite a long road to freedom.

March 14, 2014

Nebraska and The Lost American Dream

Bruce Dern in Nebraska

Dealing with aging parents is one of the greatest challenges for adults as they reach their 40s and beyond. The people who once stood out as heroes that could do no wrong have become dependent on others. I’m not speaking from direct personal experience, but I’ve noticed the challenges with my grandparents during the past few years. When you add the weight of difficult memories from younger days, it makes this process even trickier. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska masks the barriers of a father-son relationship within the context of a road movie. It’s a comedy that tackles the nuances of small-town culture, but the heart is the tough relationship of two guys with a failure to communicate. Their family connection binds them together, yet finding common ground is nearly impossible.

Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne's Nebraska

Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant is a broken-down guy obsessed with getting his million dollars. All it takes is a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. Of course, there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow. It’s just a way to get people to buy magazines. Logic and rational explanations won’t deter this grizzled dreamer, and he’ll walk down the highway if that’s the only way to get there. Given the distance from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, his son David (Will Forte) decides it’s wiser to just indulge this fantasy and drive his father to Nebraska. A detour takes them to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska and provides surprising details on his past. The townsfolk are also interested in Woody’s impending riches.

A question hanging over Woody’s actions is whether he’s experiencing dementia. He often seems confused and acts in the face of reality. Writer Bob Nelson’s screenplay doesn’t make that case, but there are hints that Woody is missing some of his faculties. Another possible reason is that he never recovered from his experiences in the Korean War. He’s been drinking heavily since his return, and that’s harmed his brain. Regardless of the reasons, Woody is child-like in his insistence in going to Lincoln. He makes several visits to the hospital yet keeps venturing forward. Is his quest admirable or just pure lunacy? While the latter seems more likely, there is something noble in that persistent need to finish the mission. Life hasn’t been easy for the well-meaning guy, and people have taken advantage of his generosity. Is it too much to let him finish a harmless journey?

Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne thrives in this type of setting and finds humor within the nuances of small-town life. There have been criticisms that he’s setting up these characters for ridicule, but that’s too simple an interpretation. There are a wide range of personalities in Hawthorne, from the two brothers obsessed with cars to Woody’s scheming former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keech). Payne gets laughs from scenes like the nearly silent watching of a Bears game by a group of stoic men. It seems outlandish, yet I’ ve met relatives that aren’t that much different. This town is a heightened version of reality. Payne and Nelson walk a fine line between light comedy and ridicule, but it never reaches that point.

Dern was nominated for an Oscar, and he deserves the acclaim for making Woody such a well-defined character. We never have any doubts that he’s authentic and grow frustrated with him right along with David. I’ve yet to mention June Squibb, who also received a nod and brings fire to the tricky role of Woody’s wife Kate. She gets one big speech to the manipulative townspeople and doesn’t waste it. The story really picks up when she arrives and becomes about more than Woody and David. Squibb’s role could have easily become the typical “outspoken old lady” part, yet there’s warmth to Kate that helps her to avoid that type. Payne doesn’t hate his characters, and that’s the main reason it works.

Will Forte and Bruce Dern in Nebraska

Woody is a mess, yet we still feel for the guy because he isn’t a caricature. This heart gives Nebraska the added layer that takes it beyond a predictable slice of life. Despite their challenges, we want to learn more about the characters and discover what’s led them into such an unfortunate cycle. David has a decent job and is a solid guy, but he isn’t grabbing life by the horns. His girlfriend leaves him because he’s running in place, and it’s that type of morass that Woody’s fighting against with his trip. This cycle is evident in Hawthorne, where a rough economy has decimated the town. These characters are struggling with more than just personal issues; they’ve lost the American dream. Few signs exist that it’s coming back anytime soon, so all we can do is make the best of what’s possible.

March 4, 2014

Niche Culture: Rewind This! (2013)

Rewind This!

I grew up in the ‘80s and witnessed the rise of home video from the early days of the VCR. My parents got their first machine when I was a young kid, and it was a gigantic device with only basic features. That didn’t matter. They made copies of Star Wars, Superman, and a few other movies, and we wore them out with repeated plays. I still know every line in George Lucas’ classic and have barely watched it recently. Video stores were frequent stops for me as a teen in the early ‘90s, and there were few things more fun that browsing the aisles for a discovery. Before the days of the Internet, even well-known films might have never captured my attention. This trend continued through the DVD era, but the tide had clearly shifted. Netflix’s arrival was just around the corner, and the days of VHS and independent video stores were numbered. It’s so easy today, but is that a good thing?

Josh Johnson’s Rewind This! chronicles the wide range of people whose lives were changed by home video. It begins with a collector roaming a flea market and searching for obscure VHS tapes. While everyone may have the two-tape edition of Titanic, there are gems to discover within the stalls. There are many blogs and podcasts today devoted solely to watching terrible films, and they have a good friend in VHS. The demand was so large that even low-rent titles would earn major profits through the medium. Collectors also seek out these movies with ridiculous covers and low production values. This film is a fitting choice to begin my Niche Culture Marathon, which will include documentaries covering small but dedicated groups focused on a specific aspect of pop culture. Video stores are disappearing, but they created an interesting niche with passionate fans keeping the hope alive.

Rewind This!, released in 2013

Beyond the sadness of the demise of the video store, Johnson is also exploring the way we connect to movies. From an economic standpoint, the rise of home video expanded the audience and created the culture of obsessives that exist today. Would any of us be writing about movies and so involved if we didn’t grow up with home video? There were film lovers before this change, but the number was much smaller. The access also created niches devoted solely to a specific genre. It also gave filmmakers a chance to sell their products without the assistance of a gigantic studio. The distribution model changed and democratized the business since profits were available without theatrical distribution.

A good example is Frank Henenlotter, who directed exploitation films like Basket Case and Brain Damage in the horror arena. The low-budget productions had a limited audience but still earned him plenty of money through VHS sales. A fan like Dormath can get obsessed with those films and even create an entire attic based on horror. His fandom grew because there were so many inventive titles. A guy like Chris Strompolos can even shoot a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark on video because of it doesn’t cost a fortune. These aren’t rich kids playing with money; they’re regular people obsessed with movies who are taking advantage of technological advances. Their work may be terrible, but there’s a sense of fun that’s often missing from blockbuster productions. A guy like David “The Rock” Nelson creates bad films, but it’s endearing to watch him take a shot and produce something.

Rewind This!

It’s intriguing to compare the rise in home video with the current shifts toward watching movies online. Johnson wisely makes this connection and doesn’t just honor the past. Fans that would have traded video tapes of the Winnebago Man or something similar are putting them on YouTube or using file sharing. The physical medium is gone, and it feels much different to work in the electronic sphere. The ease in connecting with like-minded fans is a benefit, however. Those bonds give someone like Zack Carlson from the Alamo Drafthouse the ability to screen the videos and draw crowds. We’re responding to the sense that these forgotten gems are more “real” and aren’t market tested for the middle.

The question of quality also comes up frequently when thinking about streaming movies through Netflix and other sources. They lack the clarity of Blu-ray, but they’re accessible at a moment’s notice. The section looking at the format wars is interesting because VHS was inferior from a quality standpoint. One difference that helped it win was the length of the tapes, and that usefulness outweighed the beauty. Making films more accessible allows aspiring filmmakers to learn from the greats and develop their craft. When that’s combined with cheap video cameras, it changed the game. We’re seeing a similar trend now with effective digital cameras and iPhones that limit the costs of making movies.

Rewind This!

Beyond exploring interesting themes, Rewind This! is also great fun. The segment on rare discoveries was hilarious, especially the Bubba Smith workout video. He loves you and wants you to get healthy until it hurts. We see the typical collectors and fans, but it stays fresh because Johnson covers a wide variety of material. If you missed out on the VHS era, there’s still enough charm. Carlson’s visit with a reseller shows the ways video tapes remain a source of revenue. They won’t get the same resurgence as LPs because of technological limitations, but the fans are there. Johnson looks at a time when home video reached its peak, and it feels like we’re missing something today. Movie lovers have moved to a new venue, but time will tell if they’ll have the same nostalgia 20 years from now. The technology is changing so rapidly, and the next phase is just around the corner.

Next week, I’ll look at a time when pinball machines ruled the world in Special When Lit.

March 3, 2014

Museum Hours and Three Short Films by Jem Cohen

The Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna

We’ve all seen this type of guy working at an art museum or movie theater. He’s middle-aged and much older than the other attendants, yet he’s thrilled to have the job. His presence becomes a component of the institution and a welcome part of each visit. Johann (Bobby Sommer) fits that role at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. He observes the very different types of visitors and has great appreciation for the stunning works on display. The museum is his daily sanctuary and brings him joy despite limited personal connections away from work. Johann’s relaxed visage brings such warmth to Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours yet is just one element of this intriguing picture. He often drifts into the background, yet his presence remains during each successive interlude.

Mary Margaret O’Hara in Museum Hours

The story takes place in and around the museum and takes its time, yet there’s a freeing sense that anything can happen. Cohen follows Johann’s growing friendship with Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), who’s visiting Austria because of a sick relative. Their conversations about art and life are the movie’s core, yet they merely set the foundation for a much larger project. The museum and Vienna become characters in their own right and live and breathe right before our eyes. Calling the city a character is an overused cliché, yet it fits because there’s so much vibrancy on display. Cohen shoots the action from odd angles and rarely takes a conventional approach to what’s on the screen. Johann may be discussing something important, but the perspective shifts instead to the wall behind him. It’s initially off-putting yet forces us to really engage with the images on the screen. We can’t just sit back and passively observe the interactions between Johann and Anne. They’re likable characters yet never dominate our perspective.


I enjoy visiting art museums, yet the vast array of images can sometimes be too much to grasp. Getting beyond the beauty and delving into themes behind the piece require a greater participation from the observer. This is also the case with films, especially those that challenge us. Cohen presents the friendship of Anne and Johann as a starting point, and that’s enough to sustain our attention. Even so, there are multiple layers beyond that experience if we’re willing to take the leap. A striking scene follows a discussion about nudity and paintings. Several visitors stroll through the gallery and then are seen again without their clothes. It’s a striking moment because they seem so comfortable with the nakedness. You could read these shots multiple ways, but I see them as showing the feelings of home inspired by the museum. They can let down their guard and just experience the works on a personal level, and they essentially become art from this perspective.


A crucial sequence presents an art expert (Ela Piplits) giving an extensive lecture on the work of Pieter Bruegel to some visitors. She delves into the ways he shifts our attention away from the expected center piece of the painting. The title may focus on the apostle Paul, but Bruegel focuses more on the other characters in the piece. Johann observes this lecture, so it connects to our main story. It’s a tenuous relationship, however, so why does Cohen stick with this scene? It’s not a stretch to see that the Bruegel approach sheds light on what’s happening in this film. The perspective frequently shifts towards everyone but Johann and Anne and often just observes daily life in Vienna. A dim-witted listener doesn’t agree and can’t see beyond the painting’s title. Earlier, we caught a glimpse of the guy checking his phone during her lecture. It’s an obvious shot at limited perspectives on art, yet it still hits home within this film.


It’s the brief examples of warmth and surprise that lift Museum Hours above an interesting experiment. Blink and you’ll miss a brief shot of a visitor smiling at the camera before we cut to the next scene. That moment could take us out of the film but instead reminds us it’s still a construct. Like the art in the museum, Cohen is showing a particular view of reality crafted to make specific points. It’s designed to evoke a reaction yet allows for unique interpretations. We might disagree with the lecturer on Bruegel, and that’s just fine. Circling back to Johann and Anne, their relationship works because it’s formed on a love of art. How many of our friendships revolve around adoring movies, music, or another pursuit? It’s this passion that makes us human and brings depth to every connection. That nuanced enjoyment rings true and builds an intimate connection with this intriguing film.


Amber City (1999)
A perfect companion piece to Museum Hours is Amber City, a 48-minute short film directed by Cohen in Italy. It depicts an unnamed town and its residents as they go about their daily life. We also catch glimpses of museums, unique art throughout the city, and inventive shots of the streets and places where people meet. Voiceover narration gives insight to what we’re seeing, but it rarely provides the typical exposition. It’s a quiet, refreshing film that could irritate some with its mellow tone. It’s the type of original movie that could work in an art installation yet still offers plenty for a home viewing.

Anne Truitt, Working (2010)
This 13-minute film documents the work of Anne Truitt, known for creating Minimalist sculptures during the mid-20th century. Cohen documents her in 1999 at the Yadoo Artist Colony and in her D.C. studio several years later and presents some of her work. I’m not familiar with Truitt’s art, and she gives some interesting details about how it functions. Shot in both color and black and white, this short provides glimpses of her pieces close to the end of her life. This glimpse isn’t thrilling yet puts you inside the mind of an original artist.


Museum: Visiting the Unknown Man (1997)
This silent, black-and-white short offers an eerie look at the sculptures on display and the visitors that explore the untitled location. Cohen focuses specifically on the eyes of the pieces, and the blurry outlook creates a sense that they’re staring right through us.

Note: These three short films are included with Museum Hours’ DVD release and Blu-ray releases, along with a 24-page booklet with essays about the movie.

February 26, 2014

2014 Oscars: The Square (2013)


In our fast-paced modern world, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and just focus on day-to-day life. I’m a husband and father of two kids, work a full-time job, try to exercise when I can, and hope to spend some free time with family and friends. There’s also this blog and other writing activities every week. Staying immersed in current events is tricky given the pace of each passing day. The ugly situation in Ukraine this week is just the latest example of turmoil that goes well beyond political squabbles. We often get riled up here in the U.S. about minor conflicts that pale in comparison to what’s happening around the globe.

A prominent recent example is the Egyptian Revolution that began in early 2011. Using social media as a tool to generate support, the demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the overthrow of government leaders. This led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarek, but the replacements did not fulfill the promise of this sweeping change. These pivotal moments are captured in Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, which offers a first-hand account of the revolution. She places us in the streets and presents both the joys and the devastation of a people trying to enforce their will to create a better government.


Using hand-held cameras, Noujaim and her crew give us remarkable access to the events as they unfold. This isn’t a “talking head” documentary that offers insight after the fact. The moments feel so vital as the protesters stare down the military and influence change. We follow Ahmed Hassan, an idealistic young man who gets worn down by frequent setbacks. There’s a sense when Mubarek steps down that a great victory has occurred, yet it’s just another round of frustrations. Hassan’s glee shows the real stakes for everyone that go beyond political stage. They’re looking for a new way of life that’s drastically altered from the current one. Unfortunately, the forces in power aren’t going to exit the stage quietly. Creating a “society of conscience” may be a pipe dream, even in the best of circumstances. Watching Hassan and others keep battling is inspiring, despite the challenges in their way.

Another intriguing figure is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who’s faced torture and imprisonment from Mubarek’s regime. His loyalty to the cause becomes difficult when his own brothers fall short while in power. Ashour remains committed to the Brotherhood yet has allies like Khalid Abdalla on the other side. His past has shown what powerful men will do to his group in the wrong circumstances. Do they deserve a chance to rule the land after facing so much persecution? When the elected President Mohammed Morsi is removed in a coup d'état, it ends the Brotherhood’s chance at power and makes them enemies of the state. It may be the right thing for the country, but it will be difficult for a guy like Ashour. This example shows the complexities that arise with every shift in power and remind us why it’s so challenging to bring about positive change in this landscape.


Noujaim also directed Control Room, a compelling 2004 documentary that focused on journalists covering the Iraq War. It gave an insider’s perspective and showed different layers of the issue through the participants on the ground. That approach works again with this film, which connects us with a wave that’s truly revolutionary. Despite the continued setbacks from new figures in power, there’s still a sense that people are coming together to ask for something better. The question that hangs over the protests is how to make it happen. One participant wisely points out that saying “no” only goes so far and won't create a real solution. Noujaim doesn’t answer that question but shows us enough to explain that the current situation isn’t working for many of the Egyptian people. The protests can inspire change, yet there are questions about who's really benefiting from the new regimes.

Some of the most impactful moments in The Square involve the violence that erupts when the government lays down the law. A tank runs down civilians purposefully, yet the military goes on television and denies the claims. Musician Ramy Essam is beaten brutally for performing activist songs within the crowd. We observe soldiers using live rounds and flee right alongside the people when chaos becomes the norm. The danger feels real, and that intensity brings a relevance to the material that’s impossible to manufacture. The situation remains tenuous in Egypt today, and this movie should help to educate people who are far removed from that struggle. Having Netflix on board as a producer will give a much wider access to Noujaim’s film, and the Oscar nomination will expand the scope even further. The difficulties remain in Egypt, but awareness is a mighty weapon in the ongoing struggle.

February 24, 2014

2014 Oscars: Gravity (2013)

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity

What drives our exploration of space? The naïve answer is the joy of making discoveries, but that’s rarely the case. The build-up of the Mercury program happened because of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. Once we reached the moon, skeptics were ready to abandon the program and focus on domestic concerns. Apollo was dead just three years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and the Space Shuttle has focused on Earth orbit. That program’s end has left NASA with much different priorities and limited funding. Other countries have grabbed the mantle, but any long-term manned explorations seem far in the future. Nationwide excitement about the space program seems consigned to a different era and inconceivable today. Space remains an unforgiving, dangerous place that requires a major commitment for continued advancements.

That sense of danger is everywhere in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which documents a disaster on a fictional Space Shuttle in Earth orbit. Even highly trained astronauts have little chance when events go awry in a blink of an eye. Our most technologically advanced spacecraft offer only so much protection and can quickly reach a critical stage. While our record of success in space has been stellar, the Columbia and Challenger disasters offer telling reminders that this film isn’t that far-fetched. We spend most of the story with Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, a rookie who initially survives by chance. With each successive obstacle, she gains a new sense of purpose and proves her mettle. She’s joined for part of the way by the old-school veteran Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who seems unflappable in the face of extreme danger. He spends much of his time coaching her to safety, though his journey ends before the ultimate destination.

Gravity

Cuarón focuses on Ryan’s personal growth in the face of massive odds against her. He incorporates blatant imagery about re-birth that would seem heavy-handed if we had the time to think about it. The action happens almost nonstop and keeps blistering right up to the end. The technical achievements of placing us inside the spacesuit with Ryan are incredible and can’t be overstated. While most of the film is created through digital effects, it’s easy to take the leap and believe that Ryan is truly floating in space. Viewing the action in 3D on a giant IMAX screen just adds to the immersion and makes a strong case for those theatrical enhancements. Cuarón barely gives us a chance to catch our breath and just keeps throwing new challenges into the mix. When Ryan finally reaches the International Space Station (ISS), there’s a sigh of relief from her and the audience. Most films would slow down the pace, but we’ve already seen a glimpse of the next problem.

Beyond the themes of spiritual growth, Cuarón also raises questions about whether humans should venture into space. He destroys the Space Shuttle, the ISS, satellites, and nearly everything manmade that’s been placed in Earth orbit. An old-school astronaut like Matt does everything he can to stay alive, but even he can’t defeat this uncaring enemy. He gets a heroic exit, but it feels like the end of an era. There are multiple ways to read this destruction; Ryan could signify a new time for space exploration. She lacks the experience and mettle of a guy like Matt, but this trauma allows her to overcome past tragedies. I prefer to read this story as support for our continued attempts to explore the universe. There are huge dangers everywhere, and it takes a major commitment to even get off the ground. However, the outcome could be amazing and change our entire perspective.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

It’s easy to dismiss Gravity as a CGI spectacle that only works in a large theater, and there’s probably some merit to that discussion. The spiritual metaphors aren’t subtle, particularly during the last scene. In lesser hands, Ryan’s survival wouldn’t mean so much. The difference comes from Sandra Bullock, who brings such vulnerability to this role and keeps her fate so gripping. She takes what’s on the page and imbues it with raw emotions, particularly during her conversation with an Inuit fisherman. Her emotional barriers are gone, and she’s connecting so strongly with just a voice. Bullock gives the performance of her career in a production that had to be difficult. By giving us her perspective and making it a natural experience, Cuarón allows Bullock to shine. It’s this connection that stands above the technical mastery and delivers one of 2013’s greatest films.

February 21, 2014

Short Term 12: Here We Go


We’ve been conditioned to watch movies from a distance. Cities are destroyed in a heartbeat, yet they provide little more than a backdrop for the main story. When films really delve into heavy emotions, there’s a sense that we’re being manipulated. A good example is Babel, which depicts tough situations yet seems designed solely to make us hurt. When the stakes become so difficult, it starts to feel like there are no stakes at all. Creating a film that grabs us emotionally and feels authentic is nearly impossible. There are exceptions, particularly with smaller films that aren’t trying to appeal to everyone. Personal stories can still provide that connection in the right hands. A stunning example is Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, which affects us without resorting to gimmicks. The characters feel genuine and avoid the tropes that doom even well-meaning attempts to tell a different story.

Short Term 12 – Directed by Destin Cretton; Starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, and Kaitlyn Dever


Brie Larson stars as Grace, a supervisor at a residential facility that provides foster care. These kids come from troubled homes with parents that can't support them or may be the problem they’re escaping. She’s involved in a tender relationship with her co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), yet she can’t truly let down her guard. Awful treatment from her father years earlier has created barriers that won’t shatter easily. Grace’s past gives her an understanding of the kids that’s impossible to fake. They’re facing horrifying demons and act out to protect themselves, and she knows that feeling. Even a kind-hearted guy like the new arrival Nate (Rami Malek) can’t share that sympathy. It helps Grace to be great at her job, but it also creates problems at home that could devastate the good parts of her life.

What’s intriguing about this group of kids is that they rarely fall into the typical character types that you normally see in films. A prime example is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who puts out a tough aura yet struggles with thoughts of a mom who doesn’t care about him. When he tests out his new rap song with Mason, it feels true because it’s showing the cracks behind the tough persona. Instead of coming out and just telling Mason about his problems, Marcus reveals parts of them with the music. When another kid teases him about his poor wiffle ball skills, his anger is about a lot more than those barbs. Instead, it’s bringing up reminders of everything that his mom and others have said to him over the years. Keith Stanfield is a revelation in his first role in a feature film. He has limited screen time but leaves quite an impression, especially when his story gets even more difficult.


A key relationship is the connection between Grace and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who’s just arrived at the facility. Although Jayden’s standoffish and tries to insist she doesn’t need help, there’s a sense that it masks horror beneath the surface. Grace recognizes the familiar signs of a girl dealing with abuse that’s similar to her awful treatment from her own father. Complicating the matter is Grace’s pregnancy, which brings everything to the surface from her past. Her growing interest in Jayden could be positive for both of them, yet it also resurrects an anger that could lead to her destruction. There’s a key moment that threatens to send Grace (and the movie) into a less exciting direction. It seems too obvious and out of a lesser movie, so it’s refreshing to watch the issue shake out differently.

This is Cretton’s second film after I Am Not a Hipster, and he shows a keen understanding of developing characters. He balances the stories of Marcus, Jayden, and the other kids with Grace’s struggles and her romance with Mason. This environment feels lived in and doesn’t seem present only when the cameras are rolling. The residents evolve and grow, and every accomplishment brings new risks of a setback. There is no straight line to happiness, and it’s a daily fight to keep moving forward. The framing scenes of the counselors outside the facility support this theme. Grace has come a long way, yet there are new challenges every day to overcome. Her father’s getting out of prison, and the past isn’t through with her. Even so, there’s a sense of hope that she’s ready to battle everything that comes her way.