Tag: film

Review of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

3 stars

“Taxi” an interesting Iranian sociological stunt

In the first Jafar Panahi film that I watched, with the meta title “This Is Not a Film”, Iranian director Panahi is on house arrest for twenty years by the Iranian government, and he is mostly pacing around his house, talking about how bored he is and apparently trying to kill time. While it may have made some good points about Iran’s oppressive government, it was not very interesting. In fact, the film’s backstory was much more interesting. Panahi filmed himself on an iPhone, then put his footage onto a flash drive smuggled inside a birthday cake that was sent to the Cannes Film Festival. This whole process could have made a fascinating double-meta documentary.

I did not see “Closed Curtain”, Panahi’s following film, but “Taxi” is an interesting semi-documentary, in an even more confined space than “This Is Not a Film”. Until about the last scene, Panahi makes a point to never get out of the cab that he is driving. Basically, Panahi picks up a diverse assortment of passengers, posing as  a cab driver. Despite being more confined than “This Is Not a Film”, “Taxi” is much more interesting and insightful.

“Taxi” is somewhat messy and meandering, since some of the actors are non-professional, and sometimes Panahi’s stunt comes off as contrived and stagy. The first scene is fascinating, showing two passengers in Panahi’s cab with two conflicting, yet familiar sounding, political ideologies. The man in the front recounts a story of a friend who got the tires of his car stolen and replaced with bricks, and says the guy should have been hanged; the woman in the back seat (which I assume was intentional) basically tells him that the man who stole the tires should have been helped instead of punished. They have an intense, fascinating, and somewhat petty argument that gives a taste of how social relations are in Iran.

Later in the film, Panahi picks up his daughter from what seems to be an arts school. She is about ten years old, and is taking a film class. Her film teacher tells her the rules of making a distributable film; she tells her father what the rules are, and this interaction speaks volumes, given Panahi’s trouble with the government for the films he directed. One of the caveats that stuck out to me was “no sordid realism”. His daughter finds this confusing, pointing out that people should not do things that they are not willing to show.

The “taxi” in the film seems metaphorical for Panahi’s confinement,  showing how he can leave the confinement of his own house only to be even more confined in a taxi. The passengers are like his glimpse into the Iranian zeitgeist, only hearing bits and pieces, but never getting the full story. There is much to be said for the craft and thought that has been put into this film, especially given the small space Panahi had to work with.

 

 

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Review of Best of Enemies

4 stars

“Enemies” a fascinating, poignant, profound documentary

The masterful documentary, “Best of Enemies”, is about the televised debates between Democrat Gore Vidal, and Republican William F. Buckley. They were shown on ABC in 1968, when ABC was considered a dumping ground for lesser programming such as “The Flying Nun”. Their debate would hopefully give ABC more credibility, and it happened to revolutionize television forever.

“Best of Enemies” shows why documentaries can be so much better than fictionalized accounts when it comes to insights into human nature. Both Buckley and Vidal were so much more than they seemed, and this documentary showed their nuances and human complexities more than any fiction account probably ever could.

Buckley and Vidal seemed to have so much in common that their differences were practically an irksome disappointment. They both went to boarding schools, they were both writers, and both had an elevated, aristocratic manner. Yet, it was mostly their sociopolitical views that divided them, and created so much personal animosity between the two.

Since ABC was suffering from a creative void, the network executives thought it would breathe new life into the channel and give it a ratings boost, if they had two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum debate each other’s views; essentially, the verbal equivalent of boxing. Buckley already had his own show, called “Firing Line”, where he debated his guests, who were just about always Democrats.

Buckley and Vidal had a total of 10 televised debates, and there is a point toward the 8th or 9th debate, where they both cross the line into name-calling. I will let you see for yourself, but at that point in the film, their overboard insults truly got under my skin. Gore and Bill were articulate and intelligent in a way that most TV personalities, these days, are not, yet when they needled each other enough, their worst sides would spill out.

Though Vidal and Buckley had their flaws, and were both smug in a way that just about every political commentator nowadays is, the film shows their humanity. I found it rather tragic when it is recalled that when Buckley was older and he was on a talk show, he was shown a clip of the name-calling feud between him and Vidal, and I could sense how ashamed he was, saying “I thought that tape had been burned.”

Following the debates, Vidal and Buckley wrote what could basically have been called smear articles about each other in Esquire Magazine. They went back and forth with lawsuits, and one can sense that on some level they enjoyed this back-and-forth feud. Gore Vidal, though, like Bill Buckley, seemed to hide his insecurity with cold wit and sarcasm. These two men deserved each other.

Whenever I see a documentary like this, I wish there would be more documentaries this great, that explore human nature and behavior in ways that fiction cannot. This was truly one of the best films, of any genre, of 2015.

 

Review of Chiraq

3 stars

“Chiraq” a weird, over-the-top spectacle

Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” is surreal, meta, and over-the-top. I admire the whole film for its boldness of vision, even if it is not always pulled off well. When it works, it is a wonder to behold. For all the stylistic flourishes in the film that do not work, there are many that do. The film begins with a breathtaking image of the United States split into thirds of red, white, and blue, and guns and rifles making up the states. This works despite its heavy-handedness, mostly because it is creative, and it got my attention.

The film is based on the classic Greek comedy, “Lysistrata”, and updated to the present day in Chicago. It keeps the characters names, and its fourth-wall-breaking narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The main female protagonist is Lysistrata, who is in a relationship with a rapper with the stage name Chi-raq, played by Nick Cannon. Lysistrata gets the idea from a neighbor played by Angela Bassett to go on a sex strike and round up all the other heterosexual black women in Chicago to strike with her, until the men stop shooting each other.

This premise does not translate seamlessly to modern America; I would even say that, as a resident of the Chicago area, with the exception of some shots and references, the film did not give me a strong Chicago vibe. It kind of felt like it could have taken place anywhere in America, and this is probably because Spike Lee is not from Chicago. With Spike being a Brooklyn native,  I got more of a sense of place and location from films he directed like “25th Hour” and “Do the Right Thing”. This is because a) he is most familiar with NYC and b) Chicago, at least for me, has never been as conspicuous on film, as cities like NY or LA. Despite this, Chi-raq worked somewhat as a stinging commentary on race and violence in America as a whole, even if Chicago may have been a generic backdrop, that served little purpose besides its provocative nickname.

One of the things about the film that works surprisingly well is that it is spoken in iambic pentameter. The dialogue mostly rhymes, and after a while, I was having fun guessing and anticipating the characters’ rhymes.  A rhyme that worked especially well was “strike” and “dyke”.

Another powerful aspect of the film is John Cusack, as the compassionate Mike Corridan, based on Chicago’s Rev. Mike Pfleger; he has a deeply moving scene, where he preaches to a black congregation about their “self-inflicted genocide”. This scene may be the best piece of acting that John Cusack has ever done.

“Chi-raq” may be somewhat bloated, with a reach that exceeds its grasp, and it has moments that are so over-the-top that I just had to cringe. Yet, what does work has a sort of go for broke power that, by the end, left me haunted and shook up, and feeling like I saw an imperfect, yet vital piece of cinema.

 

 

 

 

Review of Grandma

 3 stars

“Grandma” a bittersweet dramedy enlivened by Lily Tomlin

Paul Weitz’s dramedy, “Grandma”, is given heart, energy and a reason to exist by Lily Tomlin. She gives her lines levels of warmth, sadness and self-deprecating humor that probably most other actresses probably could not have. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, who has a rich backstory, which comes into play when her granddaughter, Sage, asks her for money so she get an abortion. Elle has no money to give her, because she paid off all her debts, and hilariously cut up her credit cards into wind chimes.

Elle reminds Sage that this decision will haunt her for the rest of her life if she chooses to go through with it. Elle and Sage spend the day asking others for money, including Sage’s boyfriend, a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox), Elle’s ex-husband, Karl, played excellently by Sam Elliott, and finally, Sage’s mother, played very well, yet somewhat cartoonishly, by Marcia Gay Harden. Elle beats up Sage’s immature boyfriend with a hockey stick, making Sage worried that the whole school will know. Elle scoffs because of how ridiculous it would sound.

Elle is a lesbian, and she just broke up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). She married Karl before she came to terms with herself as a lesbian. Their scene is written with written in a relaxed yet intelligent manner, revealing their past and their personalities. It is the only scene Sam Elliott is in, yet it shows how he was wounded by her, yet is still in love with her. Sam Elliott’s face and voice are very expressive in this scene, showing how much an actor can accomplish with so little screen time.

Marcia Gay Harden, as Sage’s mother/ Elle’s daughter, is intensely caffeinated, and always on the go. She is the very last person they ask for money, and the reason is apparent right when we see her. She immediately asks her why she didn’t use condoms. We can tell, though, that she cares for Sage, and she is just juggling too many things at once.

It was an interesting choice to have the mother, almost self-consciously, out of the picture, and focus, for the most part, on Tomlin’s rapport with her granddaughter. Even with how cranky Elle appears, she has Sage’s best interest at heart, perhaps in some ways more than Sage’s mother. The film is divided into six chapters, and  the final chapter was a bit superfluous. It just seemed to lay things on a little too thick. If the film ended a little before that, it would have been more satisfying.

 

My Top 10 Best (or Favorite) Films of 2013

2013 has been quite an exciting year for cinema. Something I have realized about myself and movies this year is that I have become drawn more to subtle, understated films about relationships and the complexities of everyday life. Three films on this list, including “Her”, “Short Term 12”, and “Fruitvale Station”, are quiet and patient, yet they are all interesting and moving. I would take any of those 3 movies over a loud, stupid mess like “Pacific Rim” any day. So for the top honor of best film of the year, I was torn between “Before Midnight”, “Captain Phillips” and “Her”. In the end though, “Captain Phillips” wins. The list is as follows:

* Reviewed on website

 

1imageCaptain Phillips- “Phillips” is a riveting thriller where Tom Hanks plays the title character, a cargo ship captain on a ship in Somalia, being hijacked by Somali pirates. Barkhad Abdi gives a menacing performance as the pirate in charge of the hijacking. Just about wherever Hanks and the pirates were I felt like I was right there with them.

2. imageHer- “Her” is a film for our technology obsessed times. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly who buys an operating system, brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson, The operating system’s name is Samantha, and she has all the other qualities of humans and more. They eventually fall in love. Somehow this all feels right, and it does not become too tacky. It is philosophical sci-fi at its best.

*3.image Before Midnight- This is a beautiful, romantic film, about mature seasoned love. The characters are so articulate I could have listened to them talk for hours. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play Jesse and Celine, a married couple whose relationship has been tested through the years, and somehow their arguing never becomes uncomfortable or annoying. Hawke and Delpy have possibly the best chemistry of any Hollywood couple ever.

*4.image  Short Term 12- When this film first came out, I liked it, but I did not love it; yet as time went on, the film made more of an impact. Brie Larson gives an incredibly moving and Oscar-worthy performance as Grace, a patient and saintly woman who works at a foster home for teens.  John  Gallagher Jr. is also good as Grace’s co-worker and off and on boyfriend. Together, they get through each day with a sense of humor and empathy, working with all kinds of teens of different classes and ethnic backgrounds.

5.image 12 Years a Slave– This is one of the most brutal films I have ever seen about slavery, yet it is always convincing and it has an extremely compelling point of view. Solomon Northup is an upper middle-class violinist, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. “12 Years” is almost like the anti-Django, about a slave who never resorts to petty, macho platitudes,  but simply survives, and comes out as a noble, yet wounded man. Sarah Paulson also gives a chilling, yet compelling performance, as Mistress Epps, the wife of Edwin Epps, the equally vicious slave owner, played just as well by Michael Fassbender.

6. imageMud- A beautiful, surprisingly heartwarming tale of life on the Mississippi. Matthew McConaughey plays Mud, a drifter whom 2 young boys, named Ellis and Neckbone, stumble upon and become a go-between for. Mud is in love with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who does not exactly feel the same way. The emotions in this film are much more complicated than this, and it is primarily about, how Ellis discovers the complications of love, and his disillusionment about romantic love.

7. File:ZeroDarkThirty2012Poster.jpgZero Dark Thirty- I know “ZDT” qualitfied for the 2012 Oscars, but I was able to see it about 2 weeks into January 2013, after I had made my top ten list for 2012. This being said, Jessica Chastain gives a coldly understated performance as Maya, a woman who is assigned to find Osama bin Laden, and will stop at  nothing to track him down and kill him. The film is so tense and tightly wound that it seems to be on the edge of an explosion every second.

*8. imageBlue Jasmine- Cate Blanchett gives a tragic, yet funny and relatable performance as Jasmine, a rich woman, who was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin) a Madoff-like crook, and basically had a nervous breakdown from their divorce.

*9. imageFruitvale Station- “Fruitvale” is a completely plausible, tragic story of Oscar, a 22-year-old African-American man, who is trying to go straight and stop dealing drugs, and be a better father.  His life, though, is stopped short in a subway, when  police shoot him. This is what the whole film leads up to, so it is not a spoiler. When his mother, played masterfully by Octavia Spencer, hears that her son got shot, it is one of the most moving, most meaningful moments in a film all of last year.

10.File:The Spectacular Now film.jpg The Spectacular Now- Miles Teller (who we may see a lot more of) and Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”, “Divergent”) give superb, complex performances as 2 teenagers in love. They are fairly awkward characters, which gives the movie a realistic feel.

Review of Nebraska

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/76/Nebraska_Poster.jpg

“Nebraska” a brilliantly deadpan road dramedy

3 stars

The opening scene of “Nebraska” shows Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) walking on a highway to Lincoln, Nebraska. This is before the credits and is a little slow going, yet it seems to completely establish Woody Grant as a character. He wants to go to Nebraska and he is not going to let anyone get in his way. Woody got a letter in the mail from a sweepstakes saying he won a million dollars, and can pick it up in Lincoln, Nebraska. This is obviously junk mail, but Woody is senile, yet this is not all that is going on; he sees the sweepstakes as the only thing he can cling onto in his seemingly empty life. He lives in Billings, Montana, so this would be a long drive.

Woody convinces his son David (Will Forte), to take him on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody’s hilariously judgmental wife, Kate (June Squibb) is strongly against this. Just about everybody knows Woody is senile and not very aware of his surroundings. Woody’s other son Ross, (Bob Odenkirk) does not support the road trip either. Yet David wants his Dad to be happy, and he knows he does not have much time left.

The road trip, and especially the adventures along the way, are often gut-bustingly hilarious, yet they are very deadpan and understated in a way that makes them so much funnier than if they had gone over-the-top. The film, so much of the time, seems to combine the Cohen Brothers’ quirky view of Middle America minutiae with “The Simpsons” view of goofy geriatrics. So many of the old-timers in “Nebraska” have an endearingly terse way of talking that I could not help but laugh, simply because of their rhythms of speech.

“Nebraska” is directed by Alexander Payne, who has an excellent track record, even though he has only directed 6 films since 1996. This may be the most heartless, soulless, and bitter of all of Payne’s films, yet it is so funny, in such an underplayed way, that I didn’t mind its misanthropic tone. Bruce Dern does not make by any means a likeable character; probably, the only conventionally likeable character in the film is Woody’s son, David, who is also the least interesting character in the film. I actually would have preferred it if Bob Odenkirk had switched places with Will Forte, and had the bigger part in the film.

“Nebraska” would be an extremely unpleasant and depressing film if it were not so funny in such a controlled and underplayed sort of way. June Squibb, who also played Jack Nicholson’s wife in the movie “About Schmidt”, is full of hilarious comic lines and monologues. She is a well-written character, and she brings her character to exciting, hilarious life. It is in black & white, giving it a beautiful, old-fashioned kind of feel, and the film’s look seems perfectly suited to it; it is set in an old-fashioned small town, highly reminiscent of my Dad’s hometown of Pontiac, Illinois. The trouble with so many of the people in the film is they are so naïve that they do not have much a perspective beyond their hometown, even if they have traveled beyond it.

The junk mail sweepstakes that Woody receives makes him a superstar in Lincoln, Nebraska, much to the chagrin of his sons, and his wife. When Woody and David finally get to the sweepstakes office, the way they both react is brilliant. I do not want to give away too much, because there is much joy to be had in seeing people’s reactions to things that happen to them.

 “Nebraska” does have a sense of superiority to its characters, and seems to mock them most of the time, but somehow it just worked; it was so in control of its tone that I wanted to applaud it. I loved the humor that “Nebraska” found in minutiae, vacant expressions, and ordinary everyday occurrences. In this sense, the film is a profound achievement.

Review of Short Term 12

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3 stars

“12” a heartfelt, charming, sometimes funny indie

“Short Term 12” is about 2 people named Grace and Mason (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) who are the staff at a group foster home for teens. They are caring and compassionate which, to a certain extent, tested the limits of credibility for me, because of the kind of things I hear about foster homes in general. They are not known for being caring, or even giving a damn. Yet the movie never feels phony, and the emotion always feels genuinely earned.

The film had some moments that were a little too still, where characters were just staring and thinking. Yet, otherwise, the film has enough dry humor and sincerity of emotion to stay watchable all the way through. Also, Grace is the heart and soul of the film. Larson’s performance is moving and complex. She is strict, yet loving, and she holds painful secrets from her past.

When Grace’s secrets are revealed, it is devastating, yet it makes perfect sense. Grace and Mason have also been going out off and on for a while, and when she reveals to him that she is pregnant, his reaction is brilliant and well-timed. The residents at the group home are also very interesting characters, especially Jessica, played by  Kaitlyn Dever, and Marcus, played by Keith Stanfield. I am not familiar with either of these actors, yet they were both outstanding.

Jessica is a cutter, who has a tragic secret of her own, and Grace helps her tell the secret. Marcus is aggressive, belligerent and he smokes weed. She is white, and upper-middle class, and he is black and just about at the oppposite end of the spectrum. They both have secrets, and even though they both put up fights, they are survivors. Marcus writes a rap song, and by doing this, he reveals his pain.

“Short Term 12” is ultimately about redemption, and doing the right thing. The movie makes this clear at the end, with a conversation the staff are having about Marcus. The ending scene also shows that you need a sense of humor to get through the day, which Grace and Mason have in abundance. Even with how nice and good Grace and Mason, they are imperfect, complex characters, who have known pain, and have a great deal of empathy. The world needs more people like them.