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Memories of a Penitent Heart (2016)
Quietly powerful and intimate family documentary
Quietly powerful and intimate family documentary, as the film-maker tries to make sense of her uncle's too-short life twenty five years after his death from what was called cancer, but was actually AIDS.
Coming from a religious catholic family, with an extremely strict and conservative matriarch, young Miguel left his home in Puerto Rico and moved to New York to become an actor. He developed a deep. loving relationship with a gay ex-priest, which soon morphed from being lovers to the deepest of non-sexual friendships, so Miguel would prowl the night and take on sexual partners in the days before anyone really understood what a potential death sentence that had become.
With his illness he was pulled between his soul mate who wanted him to be himself, and his mother, who wanted him to repent his sinful life, so that he could get into heaven. Meanwhile, the rest of the family was to varying degrees at least more empathetic with Miguel's sexuality, but were afraid to anger his mother by questioning her.
In exploring this history many years later film-maker Cecilia Aldarondo discovers family secrets, torn up hearts and souls, and her own desire to make sense of her family's unresolved pain.
A film full of deep emotions, but not histrionics, it quietly looks at how we all try to be what those who love us want and often end up pulled impossibly in multiple directions because of it.
I liked it, and I'm open to coming to love it
Created by and starring Donald Glover (who also directed 2 episodes) I wasn't quite as blown away as most of the critics were. (I think I was over-hyped by the time I watched) but I certainly liked it. For me, the 1st season was pretty uneven from episode to episode, but the stronger episodes are terrific.
It's got more of an old style sitcom approach in terms of structure (not at all tone!); the focus week to week isn't on a big serialized overall story. Each episode has it's own self contained tale within the larger basic set up. Personally, I generally like longer story arcs better even in dramady (e.g. Transparent, etc), but the show is so fresh, odd and creative in other ways that it helps balance out that drawback.
Often very funny and sometimes much larger than life, it also has moments of real emotion and subtlety. The acting is strong all around, and it's a world we haven't seen much before – struggling working class African-Americans friends in their mid/late 20s who are not the tough street kids and dealers from the hood we've seen so many times, but who certainly aren't safe and middle-class either. There are guns and drugs but also jobs and kids and record deals. There's real violence but a lot more threatened violence and posturing. And all the characters and relationships are complicated and multi-leveled.
Glover in particular creates a wonderful protagonist in Earnest. Super smart, open hearted, extremely witty, dead-pan, ambitious but also vulnerable, emotionally confused and a little lost. He's hard not to love and to occasionally be frustrated by (in a good way).
When the story of the week gives the show enough meat to build 30 minutes on, it can be great. When the story is thin, more of a one line joke, the episode tends to feel thin too, sometimes starting to feel padded and/or straining for humor.
But it's an impressive start, when it works it successfully combines social satire and comedy with real feelings and surreal story touches, and feels like one of those shows that has room to grow and deepen in future seasons.
Cries from Syria (2017)
Excellent, powerful, well-done and important
An even stronger film than Afneevsky's excellent "Winter on Fire", he uses a similar strategy here. He films his own interviews and some footage of what is going on in the country. But the core of the documentary is first hand video footage from citizens' cell phones and other cameras - images from those living and dying on the front lines - bringing the tale a powerful immediacy.
The story is truly tragic, as a hopefully attempt for an Arab spring type peaceful uprising against the long standing violent and dictatorial leadership of Assad (the film includes footage of his torturers at work) devolved quickly into brutal civil war as the government uses any means necessary to subdue it's citizens -- including devastating chemical weapon's attacks (again, among the often very brutal footage in the film).
At the same time ISIS came to the country promising to ally with the people, but quickly revealed their own murderous ways as they attempt to take over large areas of the country and impose themselves as draconian strongmen despots, killing anyone who won't do their bidding or live by their rules. So now for the people of Syria, their cities and society are being decimated by two groups of monsters simultaneously. Meanwhile, the world does shockingly little to help the rebels. As Russian planes go on bombing raids to help bolster their puppet government, the US and US look on with horror, but don't seem to be trying to even get the rebels supplies, much less to fight for or with the, or even to send a meaningful peace keeping force.
What makes the film really stand out is how it works as an emotionally devastating account of human suffering, while still doing a better job than any documentary or news report I've seen to simply make clear exactly what is going on, and whom is fighting with whom in the Syrian nightmare.
American Gods (2017)
Wildly creative, brave, challenging, and a ton of fun
Wildly inventive, insane, absurdist look at the role of Gods in the history and life of America, and a coming war between the old pagan Gods, and the newer Gods that supplanted them.
Visually breathtaking, filled with juicy, quirky performances this is a show where it's very hard to know exactly what's going on a lot of the time, or how all these surreal, disparate characters and strange piecemeal history fit together. And yet it's compulsively watchable – sexy, funny, violent, scary and occasionally moving. It's as out there as any show has ever been, matching Twin Peaks and Legion for sheer brave oddness,
Ian McShane is wonderful (as usual) as a manipulative God of some sort (to be revealed – and pleasingly not quite what I expected) who takes on a young man fresh out of jail - 'Shadow Moon' - as an apprentice. But what that apprenticeship means and where that journey will lead is a deep mystery to both us and Shadow. Along the way there are wives risen from the dead, unlucky leprechauns, 20th century media gods like Lucille Ball and David Bowie (a terrific Gillian Anderson looking like she's having a lot of fun). There are slave rebellions and appearances by multiple Jesuses (Jesi?). And that's just the tip of the hallucinatory iceberg.
The one thing the show lacks is a ton of emotion to match its many other strengths. It has affecting moments here and there, but in general it's much more a head trip than a heart trip. And that keeps it from having quite as much power as it keeps threatening to. It's always fascinating, but rarely all- consuming in the way of those very rare pieces that challenge the mind, but also still pull at the heart.
But I'll take gorgeously shot, inventively directed, super-smart, well acted, beautifully written, intellectual madness over plain old kitchen sink drama every day, if nothing else because it's very, very rare to see it done this well.
TransFatty Lives (2015)
An amazing mix of creativity, humor and tragedy
There have been a lot of documentaries - some terrific – about someone fighting a terrible illness. There have been a few made by the victim themselves, providing an extremely intimate view of the journey of facing death or extreme loss, But none that I've seen are quite like "TransFatty Lives".
Patrick O'Brien (aka DJ TransFattty) was an experimental film-maker and performance artist before he was diagnosed with ALS. His work was filled with a wild (and very endearing) gonzo sense of humor and happy creativity. And he brings that touch into documenting his own tragedy, so the moments of heart-rending naturalism are mixed with moments of great artistic and human playfulness, wit and cinematic invention.
In the end, that mix of honest pain and artistic desire to find understanding, joy and hope, to look at his situation from both inside and out, and to transcend the clichés of a 'disease film' make this one of the rare documentaries where you will both weep and laugh out loud - often when you least expect it. (It doesn't hurt that O'Brien's own story takes some very unexpected and powerful turns – both good and bad.)
A wonderful, funny, creative, tragic, deeply moving and yet uplifting film about truly trying to use life's lemons to make lemonade, and about the search to find meaning in our short and sometimes terribly difficult lives.
De Palma (2015)
Simple, honest, insightful and extremely entertaining
For those with in interest in De Palma's films and long career, or just cinema in general, this is a highly entertaining and informative visit with one of the most interesting, controversial and eclectic American film makers of the last 50 years.
The form couldn't be simpler. Just Brian De Palma sitting in a chair telling stories about each of his films in chronological order, from his first shorts in the mid 1960s to "Passion" in 2013 – an amazing span of almost 50 years. His comments are interspersed with well chosen clips from his own work, and – when he makes a reference – those of other film-makers as well.
What makes this form work so well is that De Palma is a terrific interview subject. He's funny, thoughtful, insightful, and sometimes very entertainingly snarky. He is also tremendously honest. He saves many of his toughest criticisms for himself, analyzing with surgical precision why certain of his films could have been better, and his part in those lapses. Very few directors are willing to talk at length about choices and moments they regret, usually choosing only to blame others for artistic goals falling short. But by acknowledging his own choices that didn't work out he makes himself very human, empathetic and trustworthy as a subject. He's not interested in self-glorification as much as he is in sharing a lifetime of wisdom won by mostly hard experience (few of De Palma's films got the support and attention they deserved at the time of their release – some, like 'Scarface' only became iconic years later). And he also talks with a touching wistfulness about those films he is truly proud of that never got the support – critical, commercial or both – that they deserved.
Overall you end up with a real sense of what it's like to be tremendously talented, protean, rule-breaking film-maker over 50 years – the ridiculous highs and lows, the multiple struggles, hard times and occasional triumphs of a high-profile artistic life in the weirdness that is the American film scene.
Pervert Park (2014)
Both moving and disturbing
This is an empathetic documentary portrait of a group of convicted sex offenders who live together in a trailer park because laws restricting where they can live after release from prison has made it almost impossible to find shelter. The residents support each other in a society that has spurned them.
We sit in on their group therapy sessions which are a mix of heartbreaking and chilling. It's not easy to watch someone – even someone who seems to feel terrible remorse – relate the story of how he came to rape a 5 year old girl. But it's also powerful and sad to realize that almost to a person, all these men (and a couple of women) were themselves terribly sexually abused as children. And that one of their children whom they abused has now gone on to be convicted of a sex crime as well. The film posits that these people are certainly criminals, but they are also certainly victims as well, and that only through compassionate treatment can the cycle be broken.
It also makes clear that lumping so many offenders with crimes of wildly different seriousness in the same heading of 'registered sex offender', publishing their names and addresses, not allowing them to live or work in huge swaths of the areas they live in is - for many - a highly unfair practice, and actually endanger all the offenders, allowing those out to frighten or harm them easy access.
It's an uncomfortable film to watch – it's hard to find oneself empathetic to people who have done terrible things. But it's also an important questioning of how we treat other human beings, no matter what their past holds.
One flaw - I was frustrated that the film sites statistics that go against what most of us have heard so many times – stating that sex criminals are actually among the least likely to offend again, not the most – but then fails to say where those statistics come from, or why most people have heard the opposite. If you're going to challenge people's fears and conventional wisdom, you need more than an unattributed title card.
If not up with Akin's best, still an endearing coming of age tale
Charming, amiable teen-age comedy with a few moments of sadness thrown in as well. Two 14 year old 'outsider' boys in Berlin form a friendship, and take off for the country in a stolen car, seeking adventure.
The odd couple of friends here are pretty endearing. There's no big, obvious reason Maik is an outsider. He's OK looking, not a bad kid, not a teacher's pet or a bad boy. He just has the bad luck of not standing out enough to make him cool, so he's become a non-entity in his class. His counterpart – the very hard to overlook Tschick -- is an extremely tall Russian immigrant 'new-kid' with a silly hair cut and a bad-ass tough attitude. Their bond is sweet, and somehow believable.
Based on a popular young-adult German novel, "Tschick" is not as edgy, odd and original as most of Akin's films, but has just enough quirk and personality to keep it from falling into feeling too familiar, even if the basic story is a variation on something we've seen many times. Of all Akin's earlier films probably the closes analog is "In July" (2000) – a familiar rom-com story given a personality through Akin's approach.
If not the revelation I was hoping for given the brilliance of Akin's best films ("Head-On", "The Edge of Heaven") it's still a likable coming of age film with it's own bittersweet take on the world.
American Honey (2016)
Grew on 2nd viewing
I love Andrea Arnold, but on 1st viewing I struggled with 'American Honey'. That said, it grew on me considerably on a 2nd watch.
At times it's repetitive, borderline manipulative or indulgent. (I still don't know that it's 2 hour 43 minute running time is really justified or necessary). It also felt less rooted in complex ideas and themes than Arnold's earlier work.
It may be partly a problem of expectation. On first viewing I kept expecting more connected plot elements in what is much more a truly tonal, poetic film. The second time around I just let the film's images, performances and sounds wash over me, giving a sometimes powerful sense of being young, lost, poor but very alive in the U.S. heartland.
It's also notable that this is very much a film about "America", by a film-maker from the U.K., and it occasionally feels a bit like an outsider's slightly cartoon-ish critique of American culture, greed, consumerism, poverty, family. One confederate flag image might have been potent. 5 or 6 starts to feel like shooting fish in a barrel.
But all carping aside, there are some beautiful images and terrific moments and even some brilliant set pieces that boldly defy and challenge emotional expectations. Arnold gets remarkably natural, honest performances from her largely non-professional cast, and gets the best work from the talented but often wasted Shia LaBoeuf in quite a while. Even if imperfect, the film is well worth seeing for fans of Arnold or of tonal, deliberate film-making (Terrence Malick comes to mind).
Adam Ruins Everything (2015)
A lot of fun, and you'll actually learn stuff
Hugely enjoyable streaming series where host Adam Conover debunks popular myths and misconceptions.
The sketch comedy framing elements can occasionally miss, but are mostly funny, and well acted by a cast of regulars and Conover's put-on boyish excitement is pretty amusing and effective. Most importantly, I actually learned a bunch of useful and/or fascinating stuff I didn't know, and had a lot of fun doing it.
Sort of the hipper, funnier version of 'Mythbusters' (although this tackles politics, laws, health, morality etc., not just science, engineering and physics) or a comic, live version of 'Snopes'.
Personally I wish there was a DVD 'best of collection'. But that's cause I'm an old guy who still likes physical media.
A righteously angry film
A disturbing and infuriating documentary about the abuse of Orcas in captivity, and how that treatment has lead in turn to a startling number of deaths and serious injuries of trainers.
The film posits that taking an up to 12,000 pound creature used to freedom and traveling up to 100 miles a day with it's incredibly close extended family, capturing it and plunking it in a giant concrete swimming pool with strange whales from other pods and goading them into performing tricks multiple times a day is a good formula to lead to these intelligent and amazing creatures to slowly go crazy, and act out. It's a hard concept to argue against.
This is indeed a one sided film, but there are cases where 'fair and balanced' is not an appropriate approach for a documentary. There aren't always two equal sides to every story. This is one such situation.
It's very moving to hear ex—trainer after ex-trainer express their remorse for how the whales were treated, and their sadness and anger for their fallen and injured comrades, And it's deeply chilling to see so much compelling evidence that Sea World knew just how bad things were, and worked overtime to keep it from the press, the public and even the trainers themselves – many of whom were fed lies about the whales (e.g. they live longer in captivity) that they in turn fed the visiting public.
The footage of the actual attacks are truly terrifying. This is not a film for kids. But it is a film to remind us of how far companies will go for a buck, and how humans can blind themselves to the sufferings of others – Orcas or other people – when it's in their short term self-interest.
The Hard Stop (2015)
Strong and different approach to a sadly familiar subject
Another tragic tale of a poor, young black man killed by police in what are – at best – highly questionable circumstances, and the riots that followed. But this story takes place in London, not the U.S. and is a powerful and timely reminder that issues of poverty, racism, police violence are far from uniquely American.
Amponsah defies the expected by focusing much less on the whys and hows of the shooting itself, and much more on the lives those left behind – specifically the two best friends of the victim, Mark Duggan. One, Marcus, is fueled by anger and grief at not only the death of his friend, but at the situation of his people, his neighborhood. He spends time in prison for helping to start the riots that followed the shooting – though the film briefly raises questions as to the fairness of the charge. Marcus was certainly present, and participated to some extent, but his claim that he also tried to stop things when the riot went from being an expression of outrage to an excuse to loot and pillage seems to be supported to at least some extent by closed circuit TV footage. He finds some solace in Muslim faith, and ultimately seems determined to try and make a change for the better in his poverty stricken neighborhood.
The other friend, Kurtis, is a lighter soul – funny and talkative, though no less hurt and angry at both Duggan's death, and the situation of his community.
The film can feel scattershot at times – it's neither fully an expose of an incident of injustice, nor a character study, nor a wider political polemic. In jumping around between those elements, it can sometimes undermine the sense of focus. But at the same time, there is something brave and new in trying to create a mosaic that covers both the past and the present, and does nothing to deny the bleakness of the situation, yet still offers hope, and people refusing to give up. In this, the film's strengths and weaknesses are really just two sides of the same coin.
I'm also open to the fact that I went in expecting more of an expose than an essay, so on 2nd viewing I might find it easier to go with the flow of the films that is, instead of being thrown by what it wasn't.
Certainly intelligent and important, and far from a simple story or simplistic approach.
Disturbing the Peace (2016)
Powerful and important
On a purely factual level there's not a lot new in this documentary about striving for a just peace on both sides in Israel/Palestine – even for an interested lay person who follows the news with any focus.
But that doesn't keep the film from being both extremely important and deeply moving.
Seeing these men and women who had been filled with hate, ready to kill or die for their 'side', but who now fight for peace and understanding brings back memories of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others who understood that we are all human, that we all grieve our dead and that our shared humanities are far more important than our differences.
We get to know elite Israeli soldiers who risk the hatred and contempt of their countrymen by refusing to fight in the occupied territories after witnessing the death and destruction they've caused. They refuse to be occupiers.
On the other side we meet Palestinians like the woman who was inches away from becoming a suicide bomber before coming to understand that the people she would kill would leave behind grieving mothers no different than those she sees all around her in Palestine. She refuses to be a terrorist.
And in these many stories of saying 'no' to violence, hate and death, 'yes' to kindness, empathy and working together towards understanding the film provides a tremendously powerful sense of hope – not only for this troubled region, but for the human species as a whole.
Wild Ocean (2008)
Short, beautiful to look at, but not very deep (excuse the pun)
I imagine this lost a lot going from the visual power of 3D IMAX to my 60 inch 2D monitor, And it's 40 minute running time limited how deep it could go. (No pun intended). But it still was enjoyable – a well done wildlife documentary, focusing on the wild feeding frenzy that occurs most years along the eastern coast of South Africa, as giant clouds of hundreds of millions of sardines gather in search of food, bringing in turn every kind of imaginable predator in turn to eat them: sharks, dolphins, whales, sea birds, seals, and – of course – man.
Humans have fished this phenomena so heavily that the numbers of sardines has started to drop in recent years, and at the same time global ocean warming has started to change the sardines' geographical migration patterns.
All this is interesting and (or course) very well photographed. But probably because IMAX has to appeal to young kids as well as adults there's not the kind of depth of specific scientific information you might find in one of those BBC/David Attenborough documentaries covering the same subject.
Worth seeing, but probably far more so in it's natural habitat of a 60 foot IMAX screen.
Siu Lam juk kau (2001)
Fun, but not on the same insane level as Chow's later "Kung Fu Hustle"
While this shares some of the wonderful sense of the surreal and absurd that made Chow's 2008 "Kung Fu Hustle" a true classic comedy spoof of marshal arts films, it's nowhere near as consistent or as inventive in it's comedy. There are some real laughs, but also some serious dead spots and too-easy jokes in this tale of a bunch of once Shaolin trained Kung Fu masters giving up their hum-drum and largely unsuccessful work-a-day lives to team up and become the mightiest soccer playing force the world has ever seen.
Or are they? Team Evil is waiting to take them on in the $1 million soccer tournament.
Good-hearted and original enough to be worth seeing once, but unlike it's even wilder and smarter descendant I can't imagine feeling a need to go back and see it again, or to own it. If that later film is like a Hong Kong action Monty Python film, this one is more Three Stooges.
Prince of Broadway (2008)
Another big hearted, funny, touching view of society's outsiders from Sean Baker
This film by Sean Baker pre-dates his better known "Tangerine" and "Starlet", but shares many of those films' considerable strengths. Baker finds a way to make films about those on the very edge of society – transsexual hookers in "Tangerine", a druggy porn star in "Starlet", hustlers selling counterfeit bags and clothing on the streets of New York here, and present their lives with compassion, empathy and – surprisingly – tremendous amounts of humor.
Baker neither judges nor condescends. These are flawed and screwed up people – like all of us – and they have great qualities, like strength, resilience and smarts like all of us too. And for all the laughs he finds in their idiosyncratic worlds and situations, it never feels like he's laughing AT these struggling folks on the margins. Baker just sees that life can be funny and people can be funny – even when circumstances are tough.
As always he gets terrific performances from a mix of pros and non-actors, who also collaborated on the dialogue (in some ways Baker seems a bit of an American Mike Leigh).
For 'Prince of Broadway' the basic plot is be a bit more familiar and predictable than some of his films: An old girl friend shows up at struggling illegal black immigrant Lucky's door and drops off a 2 year old boy, claiming that Lucky is the father, and that she's be back in 2 weeks to get him back. It's not much of a spoiler to say the kid stays longer than 2 weeks, and despite all Lucky's efforts to the contrary, he starts to bond with the boy who may or may not be his son.
But the plot here is secondary to the wonderful moment by moment human interactions. Prince Adu is terrific as Lucky. A big, tough looking guy with a terribly soft heart, Lucky is prone to freak outs and weeping as he realizes how in over his head he is in dealing with this child -- and with life in general. His best friend is his boss Levon, a white Armenian guy who runs a shop selling counterfeit and/or stolen merchandise, but who seems to genuinely care for Lucky and his fellow workers, as well as his regular customers – and who is struggling through his own painfully rocky marriage. These three form the center of the story, and a number of very well drawn supporting characters spiral off from there.
The film looks like it was made for about $25, and the end credits show the crew to be tiny, but Baker is expert at making the low-budget rough edges of his films work in their favor, using the low tech filming style to feed a sense of near documentary honesty – without falling into the now common trap of trying to make it feel literally like a documentary. The film may be messy and loose, but it's also clear Baker is thinking about where his camera goes and about telling a story visually as well as through great performances and terrific writing.
With each film by Baker I see I like him and his body of work more. Here's a guy who wants to tell the stories of the people that Hollywood and TV ignores, and does it with tons of heart, humor and smarts. Whatever minor flaws it might have, it's very much worth seeing.
Intelligent, well made, brilliantly cast family feature
Intelligent, well made family feature from the original novel, bearing little resemblance to the now campy-seeming US TV series.
Beautifully shot, well scored, and featuring a first-rate adult cast (Peter O'Toole, Samantha Morton, John Lynch, Peter Dinkage) along with some very endearing child actors, this manages to be sweet without being saccharine, sentimental without being cloying.
It even has a nice layer of social commentary about the English class system – the story involves the beloved pet being bought away from a near-starving family who can't afford to say 'no' when a lord offers them cash for their son's faithful companion.
I appreciated that Lassie is treated as a real dog, and not some kind of super-mutt. A great, wonderful dog to be sure, but her behaviors all stay within the realm of real-life dog abilities.
A very good film for kids and tweens, and a not at all bad one for grown ups who might watch with them. While it might not have quite the deep emotional power and/or wild humor of the truly classic family films, it's certainly well crafted and worth watching.
Silicon Cowboys (2016)
Light, enjoyable look at a surprising breakout business
Entertaining, intelligent 77 minute documentary about the surprising rise of Compaq computer – the almost off-handed 1981 brainchild of three young Houston friends – to become a serious rival to the seemingly untouchable giant, starchy, old-school IBM.
If there's not a lot of emotion or deeper levels to the doc, there's certainly a likable humanity to these not-so-corporate types who succeeded while creating the kind of relaxed, egalitarian company culture we now see as commonplace in the computer world, but at the time went against everything about how you were supposed to run a 'serious' company.
Maybe not a film to run out and buy, or one that will call out for multiple viewings. But I was never bored, and I was happy to get a look at this recent piece of modern business and cultural history.
Important, maddening and entertaining
A likable, nicely shot, important and informative doc, often shocking as it shows just how much perfectly good food goes to waste in the U.S. and Canada (it's more than you think – even if you think it's a LOT).
The central element: director Grant Baldwin and his mate and film-making partner Jen Rustemeyer decide to live for 6 months only on food that is discarded. Far from having to ingest disgusting half-eaten snacks, they find a plethora of high end, terrific, nutritious foods, sometimes tossed because they were at – or just somewhat near – their 'sell by' date (which the film explains has little real world relation to freshness or health), or because of minor cosmetic blemishes, or sometimes – as with boxes upon boxes of high end chocolate bars and containers of hummus – for no obvious reason at all (they check for food warnings and recalls to make sure they're not accidentally poisoning themselves).
Along the way we also see interviews with various experts on food waste, meet organic farmers, and get glimpses of how crazy the waste through the whole system is – from farm to store to home. (For just one of many examples; celery routinely has a large number of perfectly good stalks from each plant cut off to make packaging and shipping a bit easier, leaving behind a field full of top rate, unblemished chopped off stalks.) It's all educational and often maddening.
That said, it's not a film I feel a need to own. It's not a particularly emotional or deep experience, and the facts it shares are straightforward and clear. So I don't think it's something I need to see again, as glad as I was to have seen it once. That's both a strength – the film accomplishes it's goal of awakening the viewer admirably and efficiently – and a weakness – as a film it doesn't transcend from enlightening and entertaining lecture to an artistic experience.
Müll im Garten Eden (2012)
Powerful, poetic and sad documentary by Faith Akin
Note: This can be purchased on Amazon.de under the title "Mull Im Garten Eden" - it has English subtitles
I'm a long time fan of the Turkish/German film-maker Faith Akin, so I tracked down a copy of this documentary. I was glad I did.
Filmed over a number of years this is a solid, sometimes poetic, very sad film about the building of a garbage dump in the picturesque sea-side Turkish town of Camburnu, and how it slowly destroyed the town and its way of life. Eco horror stories like this are nothing new, but Akin's humanist approach makes us care by letting us get to know and like some of the crucial people of the town – like the mayor – who are fighting an endless uphill battle against the damage the lying and disinterested central government is wreaking on them.
These people are no rural rubes – they seem to know more about the law and even the engineering flaws of the dump's construction than the pathetic men who are supposed to be in charge. Inspiring at times, depressing and defeating at others, it's not the first film to show how greed and indifference is undermining our world, but it's a strong and human example.
Makes the familiar fresh
Argento has managed to transcend the trappings the ocean of coming of age/awful childhood films to create something odd, funny, sad horrifying, inventive and unique.
It's triply impressive because the heroine here is a 'poor little rich girl' – thus making her less automatically sympathetic, and she is clearly rooted in Argento's own childhood growing up with artistic, dramatic and well known parents. And it's very easy for such a personal film to lose its objectivity and simply become a scream at those adults that wounded you as a child. But by playing deftly with black humor and touches of the surreal the film mostly avoids self- pity on one side and the overly familiar on the other.
Yes, by the end watching spunky, sweet and sad little Aria get endlessly shuffled back and forth between her divorced and monstrously selfish parents gets a bit repetitive (although it IS all slowly evolving towards an ending – the repetition does pay off). And a few sequences don't work as well as most. But for every minor miss-step under Argento's adventurous hand there are a number of wonderful and very cinematic moments. It's a film I look forward to seeing again, and I hope it gets an English subtitled release on blu-ray or DVD soon.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Better than I expected, but far from what it might have been
Maybe it was the vicious reviews that led me to over compensate and be somewhat pleasantly surprised by this. Of course, I'm not the core audience, being well into middle age and not generally a fan of the comic book movie universe. That once very entertaining world now feels played out and repetitive to me, no matter how high tech the special effects.
But I did love Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy- largely for hijacking and making fun of the formulas. And that's probably why I liked (not loved) Suicide Squad. While not as successful at biting the hand that bore it as those other two comic films that refused to play by the rules, it still has fun with darkness and light and all our preconceptions about heroes and villains.
Indeed, it could have been flat out terrific, but two substantive problems held it back. First, the core plot is as silly, illogical and uninspiring as any in the weakest of the genre. Just because the film is more about the characters than the story doesn't mean there's couldn't have been something a little more imaginative to hang the tale on.
And, perhaps even more damningly, for a film that purports to be a sort of 'Dirty Dozen' of the comic book world, its villains turned anti-heroes are nowhere near 'anti' enough. They're all entertaining lightweights in the moral division. If they've done bad things you can be sure it was always for good reasons and/or they feel really bad about it. Instead of forcing us into the juicy, morally messy joy of forcing us relate to some really bad 'heroes', these are more misunderstood victims with superpowers then Walter Whites who happen to also be able to make things fly or explode. And that's too bad, because with more bite, edge and embrace of punky anarchy this could have been that rare popcorn movie is truly subversive, instead one that mildly, if sometimes entertainingly, play acts at it.
Spa Night (2016)
Delicate, well made but almost too understated coming of age tale
Beautifully shot and very well made on a truly micro budget, this story of a gay 2nd generation teen Korean coming of age in Los Angeles gains from it's intelligent production, attention to detail and unusual cultural setting, but also loses something in it's extremely familiar basic story of adolescence as well as in being so cold in it's lead actor's effect-less nature and the character's almost wordless personality. Add that with the film's distanced style and there ultimately is more to admire here than to be deeply emotionally engaged in. It's also not helpful that while Joe Seo underplays right to the edge of disappearing as David, our protagonist, some in supporting roles overplay to the point of near caricature. Neither extreme might have felt off putting in a film where the acting was more of a piece. But having the two styles next to each other was too often a reminder I was watching a film played by actors, not real human beings. Also, while I have no idea how old Joe Seo is, he looks far older than the high-school student he's supposed to be, which also took something away from feeling for the character's youthful confusion and ennui.
None-the-less, for all that carping I'm very glad I saw the film, and in Ahn's delicate use of imagery there were a good number of poetic moments that captured the painful and joyful confusion of finding one's adult self starting to emerge, even when that self puts you on a cultural collision course with your both your parents and your community.
If not the best coming of age film of recent years, it's at least a worthy addition to that admittedly overcrowded genre.
Mazursky's strengths and weaknesses both on display
While this certainly has it's moments, especially in the very strong performances by Nolte, Midler and Dreyfuss, time has dulled what I remember of it's satirical edge.
Paul Mazursky always seemed torn between making socially provocative if still mainstream movies, and making movies that were way too cute for their own good – and this is a great example of both sides. There are some really incisive and funny moments about what it means to be rich and poor in America. Unfortunately - for example - there are also about 300 cuts to reaction shots from the family dog – a good 290 more than needed. For every darkly subversive joke that works, there's a 'wacky' one that might feel more at home in a mid-range TV sit-com. Probably still worth seeing once for the acting, and the terrific moments that work, but - for me - not worth owning to for the loss of nerve and the moments that don't.
Too short, and low tech, but fun and informative
Technically rudimentary, and arguably too short, this is still a very enjoyable documentary on the rise of rhythm and blues among struggling young African American musicians before it was co-opted by white artists as rock and roll.
It focuses both in interviews and (as of 1988) current performance clips of Ruth Brown and Charles Brown (no relation, but obviously friends) recounting their trials and successes in an era when black music was still mostly a stranger to white audiences. Terrific stills, carefully selected additional interviews with creators, producers and fans, along with and archival footage give a great sense of the wild creative energy and terrors of being a wildly talented black artist in the south in the 1950s.
At only an hour it's difficult to go too far into depth on any issue; the music, racial politics, the business, life on the road. But by focusing primarily on just these two charismatic performers (both great talents who are long admired but never really broke through as much as they should have) and their experiences it manages to feel like more rich than a high- speed highlight reel.