Tuesday, July 28, 2015

“People Places Things”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview of the new comedy, “People Places Things” starring Jemaine Clement at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


When a man is confronted with an unforeseen divorce, can he resolve his feelings about his ex-wife while raising their children and trying to get on with the rest of his life?


During the fifth birthday party of his twin daughters Clio and Colette (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby, respectively), Will (Clement) is frantically trying to keep order, but he gets more than just a little bit distracted when he stumbles upon his wife Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) in flagrante delicto with Gary (Michael Chernus) in their own home. Confronting them, Will is understandably furious but Charlie informs him that she wants a divorce so that she can be with Gary; much to Will’s shock and dismay, it turns out that Charlie has been unhappy in their marriage for a very long time and now wants out.

A year after their divorce, Will finds himself living in a small apartment by himself – but when custody arrangements permit, the daughters periodically visit. Complicating matters is the fact that Charlie announced to Will that she and Gary are now making plans to get married -- and that she’s currently carrying Gary’s baby. This makes Will more than slightly uncomfortable because he was long holding out hope that they would eventually enjoy a successful reconciliation. Inconsolable at this news, Will’s work – both as a college instructor and a cartoonist – suffers greatly as he falls deeper into a depression.

With Will in obvious pain, Kat (Jessica Williams), one of his students, tries to set him up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall). Initially, things do not go well: unbeknownst to Kat, Diane has been dating someone. Not only that, but, as a literature professor herself, she is also very dismissive of what Will does for a living. Despite all of that, they inadvertently wind up spending some time with each other and a mutual attraction develops. Although Will seems to be finding a degree of happiness in his newfound romance, he starts having questions as Charlie’s wedding draws near. Will he be able to put his past with Charlie behind him and concentrate on his relationship with Diane?


“Happiness is an unsustainable condition” is a favorite line in “People Places Things”; while it may be an incisive observation, it is not particularly funny. In that sense, at least it’s consistent with the rest of the movie. While trying to create dramatic situations that put Will in comedic predicaments, filmmaker Jim Strouse merely winds up planting the character in a jam that he clearly could have avoided; the plot points to move the story forward are contrived, to say the least. It may be believable for characters in “Dumb And Dumber” to find themselves in such pickles, but not the characters with such presumed intelligence as the ones in this film. Despite a good cast obviously quite comfortable in comedy, they are unable to elevate this material beyond the mere trite.

Another problem with “People Places Things” is the way in which the central characters are presented in the story.  As a protagonist, Will spends a considerable amount of screen time wallowing in his own self-pity for so long that it makes him decidedly unsympathetic; obviously, this doesn’t particularly help the film terribly much. Charlie, Will’s ex-wife, is set up to be such an unlikeable character at the outset of the motion picture that it’s hard to understand why an audience would root for she and Will to get back together.

Following the screening, the writer/director Jim Strouse was interviewed. Strouse talked about some of the challenges encountered working as an independent filmmaker; although he can make movies, he can’t rely on that as his sole source of income. Like the character Will in “People Places Things”, he teaches a college course (although his subject is screenplay writing, not cartooning). Strouse noted that while various technological changes have made filmmaking easier to a degree (e.g., digital cameras and delivery/distribution mechanisms via the Internet), it has gotten considerably harder to make any money as a filmmaker these days.

People Places Things (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

“Southpaw”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club special event: the premiere of the new drama “Southpaw”, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Antoine Fuqua


When a champion prizefighter loses everything, can he return to the ring and recapture his former success?



In the ring, Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has a style that’s becoming increasingly dangerous: he allows his opponent to beat the daylights out of him for several rounds before retaliating and ultimately defeating him. The more fights he has, the more of a pounding he takes, but this unorthodox technique has given him an undefeated record and won him a championship belt. Not even his influential wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) can dissuade him from this method, although she is entrusted with advising him on other career matters, much to the dismay of his ruthless manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

Following a charity event, Hope is publically confronted by another boxer, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gómez), who hopes to take the championship from him. Creating a scene, he brazenly taunts Hope into a fistfight; Maureen unsuccessfully attempts to convince her husband to ignore him, but the urge to defend himself proves irresistible. During the donnybrook, a gunshot rings out -- Maureen is hit and fatally injured, leaving Hope to raise their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) alone. Unfortunately for the both of them, Hope is unable to show that he is up for the task and behaves irresponsibly, causing the court to remand Leila to Childrens Services.

Losing a subsequent match controversially, Hope reluctantly must relinquish his title and now finds himself suspended and unable to book any more fights for an extended period of time. Owing taxes and legal fees, Hope ultimately files bankruptcy and when the bank forecloses on his house, he’s homeless as well. With Mains abandoning Hope to ride the coattails of Escobar who seems destined for greatness, Hope desperately tries to regain his stature by seeking the help of gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to be his new trainer. But can Hope return to the ring as a professional and retrieve his championship?


For those who enjoy formulaic movies, “Southpaw” may provide adequate entertainment value. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a formula; if it’s done well, the formula can yield a fun, engaging or suspenseful movie-going experience. In order for that to happen, however, the film has to have a good story (screenplay) which is well-told (directing) with convincing portrayals (acting). Unfortunately, “Southpaw” contains very little of the above. The screenplay by Kurt Sutter (“Sons Of Anarchy”) is trite and clichéd; Fuqua’s directing is uninspired, at times seeming to borrow shots from Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”; and the acting by Gyllenhaall lacks verisimilitude -- his mumbling is a poor substitute for a real portrait of an uneducated kid from the streets.

One of the problems surrounding the formulaic aspects of “Southpaw” concerns its predictability. It doesn’t take ESP to anticipate which types of scenes will follow certain other scenes. For that matter, a good number of lines of dialog could probably be guessed by audience members before characters have a chance to emote them. Neither of these are a good sign. Another issue is that some events in the film just don’t ring true. For example, the investigation of the shooting itself: the police suspect the shooter may be someone from Hope’s entourage who could have been carrying an unregistered weapon. Couldn’t that be verified by having their forensics team perform a ballistics test on the pistol to determine when or even if it was fired? Also, a text messaging scene by Leila is almost unintentionally laughable.

On a more positive note, the soundtrack by Eminem, although sparsely integrated in “Southpaw”, is quite appropriate given the story; Mr. Mathers’ music actually does a better job of creating the gritty street-fighter atmosphere than anything else in the movie. Given that, it’s a bit of a shame that it is so under-utilized in this film. Obviously, that’s not going to be enough to save this motion picture. As for the acting, Rachel McAdams fans will be disappointed in her early exit; Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, gives his reliably realistic and solid performance as Hope’s new trainer -- but just as McAdams’ character leaves early, his character arrives late.


Southpaw (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, July 16, 2015

“Irrational Man”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of Woody Allen’s new comedy-drama, “Irrational Man”.


When a college professor finds something he believes may cure his depression, will it actually enhance his life or will it be ruined beyond repair?


With the Spring Semester recently concluded for a University in a small Rhode Island town, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) has accepted a job there to teach philosophy during the Summer Semester; since Abe has some degree of notoriety for having published rather controversial work in academic periodicals, both faculty and students alike have greatly anticipated his arrival.  But that isn’t the only reason for the chattering – gossip abounds regarding Abe’s reputation as something of a womanizer as well as rumors concerning his possible alcoholism.

Unfortunately, Abe is not quite as enthusiastic about his upcoming assignment as everyone else seems to be.  Professionally, he’s a burn-out case and personally, he’s a bit rudderless.  Having lost his way and left to question his life, Abe finds himself without purpose and not particularly enjoying his existence, whether in the classroom or out.  Despite this, Abe finds a pair of romantic opportunities unexpectedly crossing his path:  one is with Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow teacher at the same school.  The other is with Jill (Emma Stone), one of his students. 

While out with Jill, Abe overhears a woman talking about how a corrupt local judge has wrecked her life by awarding custody of her children to her irresponsible ex-husband.  Abe sees this as a chance for redemption:  if he can murder this judge, Abe believes his life will suddenly have the meaning that has been lacking thus far.  Devising an evil scheme which initially appears to succeed, Abe is confident he will get off scot-free.  However, things start to fall apart when Jill figures out Abe killed the judge.  But when Jill threatens to go to the authorities after Abe confesses to her, will he be able to prevent her from turning him in to the police?    


“Irrational Man” will neither be viewed as one of Woody Allen’s worst films, nor will it be considered one of his best; instead, it is somewhere in the middle.  As the filmmaker turns 80 at the end of this year, we may not know if he’s completely run out of ideas until his next motion picture – assuming there is one.  This is far from the first time that Allen has been self-derivative in his work – but as we have seen in the past, being self-derivative is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Woody Allen.  Sometimes, a mediocre Woody Allen movie can be better than most of the other choices in theaters; when it comes to “Irrational Man”, however, this may not be one of those times.

Occasionally, Woody Allen makes interesting musical choices in his movies and with “Irrational Man”, he uses Ramsey Lewis’ version of “The In Crowd” extensively – maybe too much, depending on your perspective.  Whether this is because he believes the song resonates a theme in his film or simply because he likes the tune is difficult to say.  The soundtrack is certainly varied as it ranges from this jazz standard (as well as others by Lewis) to classical music to the old standard, “Darn That Dream”.  Even if you don’t particularly care for the picture, it’s a pleasure to listen to its music.

Deserving special mention is cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has made this quaint Rhode Island location look so much like a commercial to vacation there that its Chamber of Commerce should thank him profusely; he’s shot the place beautifully, especially in scenes by the water.  Khondji has worked with Allen several times before on some of his previous films – Allen may feel he’s found the next Gordon Willis and he might just be right.  So, we’ve established that “Irrational Man” is nice to listen to and pleasant to look at, but is it entertaining to watch?  Maybe, but only if you’re interested in a rehash of themes the filmmaker already covered in “Crimes And Misdemeanors”. 

Irrational Man (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, July 09, 2015

“Tangerine”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview of the new comedy, “Tangerine”, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


When a transgender prostitute finds out her boyfriend has cheated on her, she immediately sets out for revenge – but at what price?


On her first day of freedom after spending a month in jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender prostitute who works the streets of Los Angeles, is spending Christmas Eve with her best friend and co-worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) instead of with her pimp-boyfriend Chester (James Ransone), who’s suddenly turned up missing in action.  When Alexandra accidentally lets it slip that Chester cheated on Sin-Dee while she was locked up, this causes Sin-Dee to go understandably ballistic and she heads off to try to find her man and confront him about his alleged infidelity. 

Marching down the long streets on foot, Sin-Dee makes stops at many points along the way where she either spots other working girls or suspects Chester may be hanging out.  Alexandra, always by her friend’s side, uses these opportunities to promote her singing engagement that evening at a local nightclub.  When not earning a living by picking up fares in his cab, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), is picking up transgender streetwalkers – unbeknownst to his family; as such, he is a particularly frequent customer of both Alexandra and Sin-Dee.  Spotting Razmik in his cab, Alexandra takes a break from accompanying Sin-Dee to earn some quick cash for the holidays. 

Although Sin-Dee hasn’t been able to track down Chester, she does learn the whereabouts of Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), the other prostitute (and a biological female, at that!) under Chester’s employ – in fact, she was the one Chester was with during Sin-Dee’s incarceration.  Sin-Dee beats up Dinah and drags her all around town (including to Alexandra’s performance) while still in hot pursuit of Chester.  Once Sin-Dee discovers where Chester is hiding out, she brings Dinah with her to let Chester know she’s on to his hijinks – but when Razmik shows up looking for a date, chaos erupts.  As the argument rages on, it comes out that Chester has been cheating with other people aside from just Dinah.  After Sin-Dee is informed of this, will she still be able to trust others or will she lose all of her friends for good?  


For anyone not already aware, “Tangerine” was shot entirely on a mobile telephone – specifically, an Apple iPhone 5S.  Because of this – and because the movie was reported to have been well-received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – “Tangerine” has gotten quite a bit of buzz, a considerable amount of it positive.  Using multiple phones/cameras, specially-adapted lenses and Steadicam-like devices to prevent excessive shaking, the director and cinematographer shot the entire motion picture.  If you are interested in reading more about the technical aspects behind this film, there is this recent article from The New York Times.   

Considering the equipment used, “Tangerine” is a remarkable achievement in independent filmmaking.  The ability to capture the vivid colors alone (the glaring Los Angeles sunlight being especially noteworthy) is something that will immediately grab a viewer’s attention.  Simply put, it’s a great-looking film.  But there is also the danger of spending too much time awestruck by the technology used to make “Tangerine” and not enough analyzing it as a movie.  Regardless of how this motion picture was shot, it remains an interesting, well-told story with a deeply satisfying ending; add to this the fact that, as a comedy, it succeeds in being consistently funny, and “Tangerine” is definitely worth your time and effort to see.  All of that said, it’s still a little unclear where the title comes from; please feel free to chime in with any suggestions or observations. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with “Tangerine”’s director and co-writer, Sean Baker as well as a few members of the movie’s cast and crew.  Baker, a New Yorker, said that he got the idea for “Tangerine” as a result of moving to Los Angeles.  The corner where many of these prostitutes work is on Santa Monica Boulevard and Hyland Avenue, which, Baker eventually came to learn, had long been considered something of an unofficial Red Light District in the city.  Since this spot was only about a half mile away from where he lived, Baker decided it would make the perfect subject for his next motion picture. 


Tangerine (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

“Jimmy’s Hall”–Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Jimmy’s Hall”, directed by Ken Loach.


When an Irish refugee returns to his homeland during The Great Depression, he tries to reopen the old public hall he abandoned a decade ago – but when local authorities oppose him, can he keep it open or be forced to shut its doors forever?


Between 1919 and 1921, the Irish battled the English to drive them out of Ireland.  After two years of fighting, Ireland finally agreed to a treaty – unfortunately, there remained a rather substantial contingent of Irish who opposed this treaty.  As a result, a civil war broke out in Ireland pitting the pro-treaty Irish against their anti-treaty countrymen.  Since the pro-treaty group was backed by England, they eventually won – but even with the internecine war over, hard feelings remained long thereafter.  Complicating matters was the onset of The Great Depression, which had an impact worldwide and, in parts of Europe, led to a “Red Scare” – people fearing the onslaught of Communism.

In a sense, James Gralton (Barry Ward) was a victim of all of this.  During the war between England and Ireland, Gralton opened a popular town hall where people from his county gathered regularly.  Forced out because of his political activism, Gralton migrated to America in 1922, settling in New York City.  A decade later, Gralton returned home, where he was warmly welcomed by friends, neighbors and former patrons of his famous hall.  Deciding to move in with his elderly mother, it is not long after his repatriation that Gralton is besieged by the townspeople to re-open the hall.  After initially refusing, Gralton soon changes his mind when he sees how desperate and hopeless everyone has been left due to the poor economy. 

But even after the hall is reopened, all is not well.  Even though people are flocking to the facilities to enjoy educational opportunities, sporting activities and especially nightly dancing, the town leaders are unhappy about its reemergence.  Leading the opposition is the parish priest, who fears that Holy Mother Church will lose its vice-like grip on the poor and under-educated villagers.  Not helping matters is the feeling that the hall’s mere existence alone is subversive in that Gralton will use it as a means to pollute the citizens with his Socialist beliefs.  But when the town’s council pressures Gralton to close the hall, will he succumb or can he change the councilmembers’ mind?


What’s interesting about “Jimmy’s Hall” is that it provides something of a history lesson that has largely been buried in time.   Long forgotten – at least by non-Europeans – is not only the battle between England and Ireland following World War I, but also, the internal war between the Irish once the dispute with England was more or less settled (although history tells us that it never really was, at least not if you remember the terrorism that occurred in Northern Ireland decades ago).  This movie puts much of what happened subsequently in perspective.

As a movie, however, it does have some problems.  Of particular note is that much of it feels like a play – not so much because it’s static (although with the title “Jimmy’s Hall”, it’s quite possible that may have been the case in an earlier draft).  The reason it feels like a play is due to its very talky nature – the screenplay relies a little too much on dialog and long speeches at times.  This may be because the filmmakers had a particular perspective – or an ax to grind, depending on your viewpoint.  Loach is notorious for his Socialist agenda, which is abundantly obvious given the imbalanced way the two sides are portrayed.

If you can get past the occasional chattiness, then “Jimmy’s Hall” might prove worthwhile entertainment.  There is something of a forced romantic interest that is crowbarred into the story when Gralton attempts to rekindle a relationship with an ex-girlfriend who married and started a family during Gralton’s absence.  Essentially, this is a very political film and if the politics offends your sensibilities, then perhaps it’s better to avoid the motion picture altogether.  However, if you can look at it from a historical perspective (e.g., consider the Communist paranoia of McCarthy-era America back in the 1950’s), then you might be hard pressed to do better than “Jimmy’s Hall”.   

Jimmy's Hall (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

“Trainwreck”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy “Trainwreck”, starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader and directed by Judd Apatow.


When a profligate woman finally meets a man who wants a serious relationship with her, can she settle down enough to prove she’s worthy?


Amy (Schumer) is an attractive, ambitious young lady who parties just as hard as she works -- in fact, maybe even more so. Nearly every night, she gets drunk and enjoys a one-night-stand with a different man; despite this, she half-heartedly has been regularly dating a man whom she considers her “boyfriend” -- however, once he learns that she’s been sleeping around, he breaks it off with her. As a staff writer for a men’s magazine, Amy is assigned a plum job: to interview Aaron (Hader) for an article in a future issue.  An up-and-coming surgeon specializing in sports-related injuries, Aaron is gaining a reputation for having operated on some of the more famous professional athletes.

Treating the assignment with some dread since she’s not a sports fan, Amy nevertheless sees this as an opportunity to advance herself at the magazine. She and Aaron wind up socializing one night; predictably, Amy has too much to drink at dinner, resulting in she and Aaron having sex at his place. He becomes smitten with Amy and the two continue dating with Aaron under the impression they are in a serious relationship that may lead to a permanent commitment. Amy, on the other hand, is bewildered by why this guy is hanging on to her and is just waiting for him to dump her.

Despite Amy’s behavior, Aaron sticks by her even through some of her toughest moments and proves to be the best friend she’s ever had. Eventually, Amy’s married sister meets Aaron and resoundingly approves -- but Amy remains confused about what Aaron is doing with a woman like her. Then, Amy shows her selfish, thoughtless side to Aaron, finally causing the break-up. This severely impacts their professional life as both suffer significant career setbacks. But when Amy eventually realizes she’s truly in love with Aaron, will she be able to change sufficiently to win him back?


Amy Schumer is not only among the funniest of the currently active group of comediennes, she is also, arguably, the most courageous. If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing either her stand-up act or her Comedy Central television show, you understand just exactly how brave she is with her material. Perhaps this is what ultimately makes “Trainwreck” something of a disappointment -- she really plays it way too safe in her debut movie, possibly under the guidance and recommendation of director Judd Apatow. Schumer wrote the screenplay, but structurally, Apatow may have influenced the work to be more of a traditional story. 

If, as a Schumer fan, you were expecting something like a “Hangover”-style comedy, then there is a strong likelihood that you may be rather let down by “Trainwreck”; Schumer is not as edgy or taking as many chances as she does either in her stand-up or television show. The formula in the story is that of taking an obnoxious protagonist and have her undergo so much of an emotional or psychological beating that the audience will eventually wind up empathizing with her and as a result rooting for her. Where this can sometimes backfire is whether the audience is ready and willing to forgive her for her past transgressions, regardless of how funny some of them may have been (watch out for the Clevelend Cavaliers’ LeBron James stealing one scene after another) .

Part of what throws “Trainwreck” considerably off balance is that it takes rather dramatic turns after starting out as an outlandish comedy; this proves problematic especially when the story tries to get back on track as a comedy. Sometimes, when a movie that is primarily a comedy veers off in a more dramatic direction, an audience can feel a bit of resentment; the reaction that can happen is that of being sold a bill of goods (“Hey, you tricked me into thinking this was going to be some kind of off-the-wall comedy when much of it is so serious!”). Will you have that response? Maybe not. The audience attending this screening was predominantly young women and generally speaking, they seemed to find this film to be uproariously funny.


Trainwreck (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, June 25, 2015

“Amy”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview of “Amy” , a new documentary about the late singer Amy Winehouse, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


Video and audio recordings from her mid-teens made it clear Amy Winehouse was a talented singer; from a home video taken at a friend’s birthday party, some of the guests sang “Happy Birthday” -- when Amy joined, they quieted down so everyone could listen to her unique sound. Nicky, a slightly-older friend of Amy’s, was equally impressed by her ability and urged her to pursue it professionally – to prove his belief in her, he became Amy’s original manager. Seeing Amy enjoyed writing poetry, he convinced her to set them to music; with that, her career as a singer-songwriter was born.

Once Nick was able to start getting Amy gigs, she enjoyed her independence -- especially when it came to getting away from her parents so she could openly smoke marijuana. Despite that restriction, Amy’s parents were still too permissive; this is most true of her mother, who never gave her any boundaries and pretty much let her get away with anything.  The situation deteriorated when her parents separated. Following her father’s departure, Amy turned promiscuous and soon incorporated alcohol with her marijuana usage. As Amy’s career was beginning to gain traction, she met Blake; something of a wild man himself, he only helped to accelerate her substance abuse.

After a couple of albums and numerous music awards, Amy became a fully qualified star in the industry -- something for which she was not only ill-prepared but also truly never thought would ever occur. Now that she and Blake were married, he took this as an opportunity to step up the partying and turned on Amy to harder drugs -- namely, cocaine (including crack) and heroin. Insecure about her sudden fame, Amy self-medicated with increased alcohol intake. Following a scare from an overdose, she finally consented to professional treatment; but afterward, she could only stay clean for so long. Eventually, Amy was booked for a tour that started in Serbia, but when she took the stage, she was clearly in no shape to perform and was booed; shortly thereafter, she finally succumbed to her substance abuse issues, dying at the age of 27 in 2011.


Oh, the Hot Mess that was once Amy Winehouse.

There is the old joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb -- only one, according to the punchline, but the lightbulb has to want to change; clearly, the late great Amy Winehouse was one lightbulb who was determined not to change. Despite a near-death experience in the form of an overdose, a stint at a remote rehabilitation facility and importuning by friends, family and colleagues, Winehouse steadfastly resisted all attempts at help to stop a lifestyle that quickly spun out of control. Even on a Caribbean vacation with friends where no drugs were available, she spent a good deal of it drunk.

“Amy” is an incredibly informative and educational documentary by filmmaker Asif Kapadia, providing plenty of useful graphics to explain who’s narrating a particular video clip and when that clip or audio tape was recorded. This is important to both understand the relationship the speaker had to the movie’s subject and also supplements a context to appreciate the point in Winehouse’s life to better know when certain events occurred. Another clever implementation of graphics in the documentary is the director’s displaying the lyrics to some of Winehouse’s songs as she performs them onscreen. By reading the lyrics, we see she was blunt and open regarding her feelings about herself and others.

One of the things learned about Winehouse is the fact that she was a long-time bulimic. While some may have assumed Winehouse’s frail physique was a direct result of her various substance abuse, the truth is that she actually suffered from bulimia since her mid-teens; this carried on well into her twenties and likely continued until her death -- her parents (the mother, in particular) either unwilling or unable to get young Amy help with this struggle. A rather pleasant surprise that comes from watching so many video clips is what a terrific sense of humor Winehouse had.

Such attention to detail only serves to tell the singer’s story more clearly and connect the dots to see what events led to certain behavior. Kapadia’s research and ability to locate so many video and audio recordings from Winehouse’s teenage years is equally remarkable. While a bit long for most documentaries (it’s a little over two hours), it never contains a dull moment.

Amy (2015) on IMDb


Thursday, June 18, 2015

“Infinitely Polar Bear”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Infinitely Polar Bear”, starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana.


When a man is diagnosed with manic depressive disorder, can he regain the trust of his wife and daughters or will he be destined to lose them forever?


After exhibiting behavior that ranges from tons of fun to terrifying, Cameron (Ruffalo) is hospitalized by his wife, Maggie (Saldana) to protect herself and their two daughters, Amelia and Faith (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide).  Cameron is diagnosed as being bipolar and immediately prescribed Lithium.  Following his hospitalization, Cameron is transferred to a halfway house once his condition has sufficiently stabilized.  Missing his family after such a lengthy absence, his goal now is to simply go home – but can they trust him enough to take him back? 

An opportunity arises when Columbia University accepts Maggie to their Masters program in Business Administration.  The good news is that this gives Maggie a much-needed chance to advance her career and get a job that will help better support the family without having to rely on Cameron’s grandmother (a wealthy dowager who oversees his trust fund and very sparingly doles out money).   Where this becomes a problem is that the school is in New York City, which will require Maggie to leave her family behind in Boston.  Ultimately, she decides to take the accelerated program that will allow her to earn the degree in only a year and a half – but this will require her to have Cameron take care of Amelia and Faith in her absence.  While Cameron is enthusiastic about a chance at redemption, Maggie remains reluctant. 

Even though the daughters have missed their father, things don’t take too long to get a bit rocky.  For one thing, Cameron sometimes goes off his medication, resulting in occasionally erratic behavior.  Embarrassing his daughters in front of their friends, they soon become fed up and frequently fight with Cameron.  Although Maggie visits every weekend, she can’t do enough to fix the situation.  Finally, Maggie nears graduation and begins the job search; although most companies in Boston are reluctant to hire her, there’s one New York City-based organization that makes her a firm offer.  Will Maggie take that job and move the daughters to New York City or will she turn down the chance of a lifetime so her girls can stay near their father? 


There are notable problems with “Infinitely Polar Bear” – the corny directing and sappy script (particularly some of the dialog) come immediately to mind.  However, one bright note here is the performance by Mark Ruffalo; he is able to capture the essence of Cameron’s manic behavior without going completely overboard and making the character look like a cartoonish Jim Carrey type of role.  On the other hand – and this goes back to issues with the screenplay – Cameron is mostly seen in his manic moments and very rarely in the depressive times, which makes the movie feel less realistic than it otherwise could. 

Unfortunately, Ruffalo’s performance is not nearly sufficient to elevate “Infinitely Polar Bear” to the point that it can be recommended.  The story ends with the feeling that it just suddenly stopped because it ran out of steam, rather than because it reached a resolution.  Characters – especially Cameron, since he seems to be the focal point here – don’t really have an arc; they are somewhat flat and don’t truly change, although the situations around them certainly do.  Also, the fact that Cameron’s tendency towards poor judgment that periodically puts the two daughters in potentially perilous conditions is never made an issue.

Maya Forbes, writer-director of “Infinitely Polar Bear”, supposedly based the movie on her own life; her father was said to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and growing up in that environment obviously left a substantial impression.  Perhaps the problem here is precisely that – that fact that Forbes based it on true personal events may mean that she’s too close to the story to be able to tell it in a dramatic narrative that makes it a cohesive film.  The motion picture gets its title from what is intended as a joke in one scene when a daughter mispronounces “bipolar”.   

Infinitely Polar Bear (2014) on IMDb

Friday, June 12, 2015

“The Wolfpack”– Movie Review



This week, I attended the opening night screening of the new documentary “The Wolfpack” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


When half a dozen brothers are raised by their father as shut-ins, what impact will this have on their personal development?


There are millions of stories in The Big City, but perhaps none stranger than that of The Angulos.  The Peruvian father, a once-devout Hare Krishna follower, married an American woman whom he met while she vacationed in South America; they moved to New York City and had seven children -- one daughter, the rest sons.  He named each of them with words from the Sanskrit language.  As someone who was against working for a living because he felt that it made you a slave to society, the big plan was to eventually move to Scandinavia, a country whose government would be able to support his lifestyle choice.  However, when he was never able to scrape together enough money to travel there, the family wound up living in the squalor of a low income housing project.

As if things weren’t strange enough, the father developed acute paranoia, which was further fueled by his alcoholism.  Fearing for the well-being of his family, he home-schooled all of the children and refused to allow them go outside.  In a good year, they might go out on a family excursion as many as nine times -- mostly during the summer; there was one year, however, when they never went outside at all.  The way the brothers dealt with their forced confinement was to escape into the fantasy world of movies; they managed to amass an extensive DVD collection of well-known films, including classics as well as commercial hits. 

The boys wound up re-enacting scenes from the movies they loved most; they transcribed the screenplays, made their own costumes and props and videotaped scenes from “Reservoir Dogs”, “The Dark Knight” and many others.  Feeling particularly claustrophobic, one of the older brothers snuck outside; unfortunately, he got picked up by the police because he ventured out wearing a fright mask from a well-known horror film.  Taken to a hospital, he was assigned a social worker who then worked with his siblings as well.  Upon returning to his family, he realized he no longer wanted to obey his father and went outside with increasing frequency, eventually joined by his brothers.  But would these boys be able to adapt to a modern society completely unfamiliar to them?  


What remains so remarkable about “The Wolfpack” is the fact that despite the bizarre upbringing these children have survived, they have all turned out to be seemingly well-adjusted.  They are intelligent, thoughtful and articulate.  Escaping into a rich fantasy life through movie viewing apparently is what helped them keep their sanity; they explored their own creative urges, which in turn was the glue holding them together.  That they were eventually able to think and act independently and ultimately evade the manipulative stranglehold their father had on them is nothing short of triumphant. 

The movie is flawed, however, because of choices made by the filmmaker.  One example is the fact that the brothers exist anonymously -- whenever one of them speaks on-screen, there is never a graphic to identify which one is talking.  There are also other scenes that are somewhat head-scratching.  When the brothers go to a theater for the first time, did they buy their own ticket or was it purchased for them by someone else (e.g., the filmmaker)?  The family has an extremely limited income so it’s hard to understand how all of these boys could not only afford the tickets but also the snacks we see them enjoying.  Susanne, the mother, makes a call to her mother on a cell phone; it appears they haven’t spoken in quite some time.  Her 88 year old mother makes plans to visit them in New York City.  Did she ever make it there?  Was that Susanne’s cell phone?  Why had they not spoken in so long?

Following the screening was a question and answer session between the audience and the documentary’s director Crystal Moselle, who was joined by the brothers and their mother.  Moselle said that she got the idea for the documentary when she was walking down First Avenue in Manhattan one day and saw the brothers on the street, all dressed alike; after gaining their trust, they invited her into their home to shoot the movie.  The shoot was conducted over a period of several years, Moselle said, because she specifically wanted to show the brothers’ development that took place over a long term. 


The Wolfpack (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, June 06, 2015

“The Nightmare”– Movie Review



This week, I attended the opening night of the new documentary “The Nightmare” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


Sufferers of a sleeping disorder known as “sleep paralysis” are interviewed about their condition – and how they have learned to deal with it over the years. 


Around the country – and around the world – there are many people who suffer from something that is commonly known as “sleep paralysis”.  Individuals with sleep paralysis experience frightening illusions that seem all too real to those who live through them but sound like ordinary nightmares to the uninitiated who can’t understand the depth of realism from these occurrences.  In fact, according to the stories reported about some people around the world who have had sleep paralysis, some of the events have been so treacherous that they have even resulted in death. 

While interviews with each of the eight participants reveal unique experiences with the disorder, there are also quite a few similarities as well.  One of these similarities happens to be the fact that there is the existence of what many of the interviewees referred to as “The Shadow Man”.  The Shadow Man is a being that exists in the sleep paralysis of all sufferers; he is basically an individual who may appear as somewhat human but not exactly.  Shadow Man often appears in the bedroom of the one suffering from this disorder or he can be an apparition that is outside of the home but peers into the bedroom.  The term Shadow Man comes from the fact that details or their appearance are indistinguishable due to the fact that they are mere silhouettes. 

Another characteristic shared by sleep paralysis sufferers is the fact that none of them can either speak or move when they are experiencing these perceived threats.  Thus the term paralysis – they are unable to scream or fight off these Shadow Men who appear to them for the sole purpose of torturing them during their sleep.  Many of the sleep paralysis sufferers started to have these visions when they were children; while some can point to specific childhood traumas that may have been the trigger for all of those, others cannot – and as a result, the reason remains a mystery to them until this day. 


Sleep paralysis is certainly a fascinating concept for a documentary, yet the filmmaker manages to make its story so boring, the documentary itself induces oscitancy.  Over and over, the audience is treated to interviews with sufferers of this sleeping disorder to the point that you just want to jump up and scream, “OK, I get it!  Let’s move on, already!”  Instead, we are forced to hear more and more about each individual’s experience to the point that the movie itself seems like its own nightmare.  The story is ultimately very flat and goes absolutely nowhere; one gets the sense that any given scene could be easily edited to appear in a different portion of the movie and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

The redundant nature of “The Nightmare” begs the question, “What do the experts think?” not too long into the documentary.  Sadly – and this may in fact be the reason why it fails as a film – there are absolutely no interviews with physicians or psychologists on this matter.  This results in a very self-indulgent vanity piece that feels much longer than its hour and a half.   Infusing the documentary with professional commentary would have ultimately made all the difference in the world.  There needed to be a balance in telling this story and such balance is noticeably lacking.

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session between the audience and the director of “The Nightmare”, Rodney Ascher.  Ascher had previously done a very well-received documentary called “Room 237”, an analysis of the horror movie “The Shining”.  He admitted that the reason why he did “The Nightmare” was because he himself suffered from sleep paralysis for many years.  The reason for the absence of expert commentary, according to Ascher, was due to the fact that he wanted his documentary to consist solely of first person experiences about this disorder. 


The Nightmare (2015) on IMDb