MAD MEN Returns

April 14, 2014

Things are heating up in the sense that the old guard is facing uncomfortable changes. The build up to this point has been spot on. I like it. I am pulling for Peggy and for Joan. I want more!


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

April 13, 2014

I think this movie is kind of silly.

There is one exciting action sequence involving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in an extraordinary vehicle being overtaken by a team out to kill him, but I can’t think of anything else in the film that is thrilling.

Actually, I saw the movie three days ago, and I can’t think of much else about the film worth recollecting except that Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is a badass and that it is funny to see Robert Redford in a comic book movie.

Though, maybe it’s fitting because Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a career politician/political appointee, and he has experience, construed broadly, in this type of role. Remember him as Bill McKay, a man running for the U.S. Senate from California in the 1972 film The Candidate?

I keep trying to think of something else to say about Captain America. It’s not a dreadful bore or a dud, it’s just not terribly engaging either. I don’t think that’s because Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is such an earnest fellow; it’s more a problem that runs through the film on multiple levels.

There are some interesting ideas at play about sacrificing people to create a common bond among humanity and overcoming polarization, but what could make the film an interesting narrative is muddied and lost amid the competing storylines and repetitive fighting sequences.

Hopefully, some of the other Marvel offerings, summer releases previewed in trailers before the show, will cohere better and offer more of the thrilling sequences that are needed to drive this type of film.

Captain America


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

April 13, 2014

Talk about the polarizing effect of party tactics, money, special interests, and media fragmentation on contemporary politics, and I have to wonder if Wes Anderson is any less divisive.

Most people either love him or (even if afraid to admit it) hate him.

Put me in another camp. Let’s call it Camp Ambivalence.

I appreciate the distinctiveness of his vision, really like The Fantastic Mr. Fox and the relative sweetness of Moonrise Kingdom, and I find his movies interesting to look at (at least for an hour) but seldom very engaging otherwise.

As for The Grand Budapest Hotel, my trips to Eastern Europe (Tblisi, Georgia in 2000; Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2006; and, Prague in 2009) left me with a strong appreciation of the production design of this film, which ratcheted up the engagement level a bit.

That, and it would be hard to argue that Ralph Fiennes does not give a wonderful performance as a particular and very peculiar concierge at a luxury hotel between wars because he does!

Please don’t write to me that I am a humorless, out of touch drag just because I don’t love Wes Anderson the way you do. I recognize the amusing parts of his films but don’t experience them to the degree you do. This is not about me not “getting” it but about personal preference. Or, write me if you want to, but know that we will likely have to agree to disagree on this one.

Instead of sharing an image from the movie, how about this shot of a distinctive orange phone from an inexpensive hotel I stayed at in Prague. Couldn’t you just visualize something similar in The Grand Budapest Hotel in later years?

Prague phone in hotel room


A Curious Double Feature

April 13, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I caught a double feature, and in the midst of other things, I’ve neglected to write about it.

Let’s call it one to catch and one to miss. Happily, however, we saw the one to catch, The Face of Love, second and the one to miss, Enemy, first so that I was able to leave the cinema on a positive note.

Both films feature characters figuring out what is real and what is not, both have mysterious elements, and both have bankable stars. There the similarities end. One has left me musing over the terrific performances and memorable moments while the other has left me shaking my head.

Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an odd history professor who tracks down his doppelganger after seeing him in a bit part in a movie. The movie reminds me of an extremely well-crafted MFA film.

On the other hand, Annette Benning and Ed Harris (and supporting players Robin Williams, Jess Weixler, and Amy Brenneman) overcome potential story snags in The Face of Love.

Perhaps I was primed for Arie Posin’s film about a woman madly in love with her husband of many years who falls for a man who looks just like him five years after her husband’s death. I have read Joan Didion’s wrenching account of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, and the changes she underwent following it, and her autobiographical narrative certainly nudged my willing suspension of disbelief in terms of this film.

All in all, I have certainly thought about The Face of Love repeatedly after seeing it. Annette Benning is amazing, and Ed Harris is not far behind her. Maybe that’s a sign that you should catch this in Greensboro if you missed the Winston-Salem run of the film.

The Face of Love


SILICON VALLEY

April 9, 2014

Mike Judge’s new HBO series is promising. Silicon Valley takes on the wacky world of nerds, technology, weirdness, self-absorption, and big money — it’s a potent combination — and if I knew more about that world directly could speak to the show’s verisimilitude. As it is, I can only comment on its entertainment value.

So far, so good.

And, I have to say I’ll always love Mike Judge for bringing me King of the Hill, a favorite show of mine and a Sunday night bonding ritual for me and my son for many years. We both think back on those episodes and the time we spent together on the chartreuse sofa gazing at the screen and laughing together with fondness. I can’t think of another show we both enjoyed equally and watched together regularly.

Silicon


RiverRun Docs in Competition 2014 — Updated

April 1, 2014

I have seen the ten documentaries in competition at RiverRun this year. Overall, this is another strong program in the category, and here are my picks in order.

The Case Against 8 (109 minutes). This is an informative and, frankly, thrilling look behind the scenes look at the legal case mounted to overturn California’s ban on same sex marriage. I remember when the unlikely pairing of Ted Olson and David Boies (who squared off on opposite sides of Bush v. Gore) hit the news and couldn’t believe that Olson was part of the team arguing this case. I was a little confounded at the time, but it was a brilliant move. The two couples at the center of the case are engaging, and moments they share on camera are profoundly touching. HBO plans to release the film in theaters on June 6 before its cable premiere on June 23, but you can see it first here.

The Case Against 8

The Kill Team (79 minutes). I continue to thank RiverRun for bringing the Danish film Armadillo to town several years ago (Armadillo is the film I wanted Restrepo to be), and The Kill Team ranks up there for me with Armadillo and The Tillman Story as documentaries that explore the human side of war when the heroic image of the people engaged in combat (presented by people who benefit from the enterprise) collides with the tedium and sometimes the ugliness that can prevail. This is the heartbreaking story of a young enlisted man who tries to alert authorities about war crimes in Afghanistan. Don’t miss this film to get a side of the story you won’t see explored in this detail or over time on the evening news.

Marmato (87 minutes). Think Harlan County U.S.A. set in Colombia with multinational corporations in the role of heavy. This is a fascinating look over nearly six years at the dramatic changes in a small town and its traditional way of life when corporate interests conflict with local interests. If you didn’t know that Colombia is the center of a contemporary, global gold rush (and I did not), this is an eye-opening film.

A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times (75 minutes). I have emailed every journalism professor I know urging him and her to take students to see this film. While I remember Blair’s story fairly well, many if not most of them will not know him, and this film skillfully engages viewers no matter how much or how little they know about Blair’s pathological lying and how it all unraveled. Even now, the story is just incredible. How did this happen? How could Blair have gone unchecked for so long? Highly recommended.

Bending Steel (93 minutes). Maybe my attention span is shortening. It seems to me that 75-minutes would play better than for this story, but Bending Steel does reward the viewer with a delightful pay-off. Except for seeing Sandow the Strong man in an old Edison short from around the turn of the century, my knowledge of old-time strong men is nil, and — if it were possible – my knowledge of the modern day version would be less. That’s not an impediment to appreciating Bending Steel because this is a very touching story about one man’s journey to find acceptance and appreciation internally and externally by training and performing in the style of historic strongmen. There are moments in this film that you will not soon forget.

Song From The Forest (98 minutes). If only this film were as remarkable as the story it tells. An American man falls in love with the music of the Bayaka pygmies in central Africa. He decides to stay and make a life in the jungle recording music, marrying, and having a child. The film focusing on his life in Africa after 25-years and a trip he makes to New York with his 13-year-old son who has never been outside of his home. There is so much more I wanted to know about Louis Sarno than this film conveys, but it is still worth a look.

Manakamana (118 minutes). This type of observational documentary edges into experimental territory that most viewers will not enjoy, but I commend RiverRun for bringing films to the festival that push the stylistic envelop. Described as a work of “sensory ethnography” in the program, the film documents ten cable car trips high in the mountains of Nepal where visitors are going to visit the Manakamana Temple. In structure and tone, Manakamana reminds me of Nenette, a portrait of a 40-year-old orangutan in display in Paris that focuses on Nenette while obscuring various narrators from zookeepers to visitors of all ages. I also thought of another recent RiverRun film, Sophia’s Last Ambulance that focused on the faces of a group of Bulgarian EMTs on the job. These limited perspectives force viewers to think about subjects in a new way, though sometimes I appreciate the intent of the filmmakers more than enjoy the actual films.

Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger (129 minutes). There are probably details in the film that even those who have followed the Whitey Bulger story closely don’t recall, but the film feels very long, though – fortunately – not as repetitive as the typical Dateline NBC or CBS 48 Hours true crime drama.

Mundial: The Highest Stakes (95 minutes). The weaving of a great sports story (Poland qualifying for the 1982 World Cup) and one of the most important political upheavals in Eastern Europe (Solidarity!) is important but involves too many narrators and too many overt stylistic devices to develop a central narrative that viewers can grasp easily unless they bring into the viewing some context for the central events.

Expedition to the End of the World (90 minutes). I wanted Chasing Ice, a film I still think about often (and one that gives me yet another opportunity to thank RiverRun for premiering in the Triad!). Instead, I am left searching for a story. Greenland is lovely in its way, but that is not enough to make up for the fact that there is no central narrative that pulls this film together as it glances off glaciers and topics as disparate as climate change, art, and existential angst.


DIVERGENT

March 24, 2014

Did not read the books. Did not read reviews going into the film. Did not discuss the story with devotees beforehand.

In a futuristic Chicago, teenagers must decide which of five factions to join when they reach a certain age. Their selections are based on testing and on choice, and the main character, Triss (Shailene Woodley), makes a choice that would be surprising except that viewers have been coached to expect it, and even want it, from the beginning of the film.

The factions represent the predispositions of people in the respective groups. Who doesn’t want to be selfless, peaceful, honest, brave, and intelligent, the characteristics that identify the five factions of the city?

I do, I do!

Except that in this city, the powers that be have determined that separating the factions by the dominant trait is necessary to maintain peace. People who identify with more than one of these traits are classified as Divergent and considered a threat to the city.

One thing I don’t understand, given this narrative framework, is why, then, teenagers are allowed to choose a faction regardless of their test results. I didn’t think about this when watching the film because it is a necessary condition to drive the plot, but now I think there should have been some explanation (or one that I managed to catch) to reconcile the idea of choosing factions with the competing idea that divergence is a bad thing.

I went into Divergent cold except for the preview trailers, which didn’t make me especially eager to see the film.

And…I liked it.

The action sequences are not thrilling. The story is not shocking. The love story is remarkably tender (suitable for younger viewers and offering encouragement to wait for sex until emotional readiness matches desire).

And, let’s be clear, Theo James, as Four, offers plenty in the desirability column; I’m not just talking about his smoldering gaze and expressive lips.

Actually, all of the casting works for me except that three of the male recruits in Triss’ group look too much alike to be clearly delineated, and they don’t look totally dissimilar from her brother, either. Couldn’t they choose some other “types” for those of us who haven’t devoured the books?

Seeing another strong, female lead in the mold of The Hunger Games franchise, is still refreshing after decades of Hollywood treating women and girls as a “niche” audience despite the fact that we are slightly over 50% of the population.

Besides, Divergent is entertaining. I’m glad I saw it and that I went into the screening with zero expectations.

DIVERGENT


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