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Wednesday
Jun222016

Somnio

"Somnio" bills itself as an "indie sci-fi psychological thriller," and to that apt description we might also add "Kafkaesque puzzler, with a dash of prison-break." While writer/director Travis Milloy's film is not without flaws, it's entertaining and gripping, imaginatively repurposing good old sci-fi formulas such as "man struggles with grip on reality" and "man forced to relive a moment." It can be quite funny, as well.

In the near future, Frank (Christopher Soren Kelly) stands in a coffee shop admiring a photograph of alpine trees as armed men creep up behind him and blast him with stun guns. When he awakens, he's locked in a steel chamber. His only companion is Howard, an affable disembodied voice regarding him, HAL-like, through the unblinking lens of a periscope in the ceiling. One wall of his cell is dominated by some kind of turbine; this turns out to be a dream-scanner, emitting a hypnotic pulse. Collapsed in an armchair, he dreams of the morning of his arrest. Waking in his bed in his apartment and peering out through the blinds, he observes a drone-filled sky. The news reports there's a resistance on against a repressive techno-regime, yet most people go about their day-to-day lives. Before he goes out, we see him pocket a mysterious key-shaped zip drive. Shadowed on the street by shadowy men, he slips into the coffee shop, where he's blasted again.   

Awake again, Frank demands Howard name his crime. Howard blithely replies that there is no charge. Infuriatingly, Howard can only repeat that he is just doing his job as jailer, which is (1) to hold Frank until he's processed; and (2) to keep him alive. Howard is casual, even flip, and their banter becomes a kick. Howard says he's Frank's "life support system," though being imprisoned is not "life" in any meaningful sense of the word. They discuss Frank's bitterness towards the role of computers in human life, ever since one kept his father, dying of heart disease, hanging on for years after the man was ready to go.

Frank begins to suspect he was arrested because the bio-scanner on the cash register at the coffee shop mistook him for a leader of the resistance. Now, the techno-overseers are probing his unconscious with the dream-scanner, as if examining an instant replay of that day in hopes the playback will reveal resistance secrets. The memory of the coffee shop begins to take on the characteristics of a lucid dream. As he spends more time there, Frank falls in love with the barista, Gabby (Cassandra Clark), even though she's really just a peripheral figure in his memory. Playing a dream girl, literally, Clark brings humanity and a nice sense of irony to a tricky role. (She may only be an undigested bit of his subconscious, but she has her own ideas.) Together, they begin plotting his real-world escape from the cell, though it means leaving her behind and, for all he knows, returning to a world obliterated by war.

We begin to notice visual and aural rhymes between the elements of Frank's cell and the coffee shop/apartment. Milloy rhymes the blades of overhead fans across various levels of reality in particularly pleasing ways. Similarly, the shiny, convex top of a coffee urn recalls Howard's bulbous lens. The metallic pinging of a spoon on a coffee mug echoes Frank's tapping at a grate in his cell. Even the roles of Gabby and Howard begin to conflate. 

Paranoia strikes deep in "Somnio." Its near-future vision of everyday life as a palimpsest bearing police-state fingerprints feels rather nearer than we'd like. The themes of surveillance and detention evoke the Patriot Act, CIA "black prisons," Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. Out of sight and out of mind, these play out even as we go about our day-to-day lives. Fittingly, Milloy knows how to find the eerie in the everyday--a coffee shop, a convenience store. 

Christopher Soren Kelly gives a poignant, urgent, witty performance as Frank, a haunted man piecing together fractured shards of time, memory, and dream. He gives the picture soul. The pleasure of working out the puzzle with him made "Somnio" a movie I wanted to revisit, though it has a few problems: the editing conveys Frank's confusion, but occasionally provokes the same in us. The picture could be charged with mixing formulas (a bit of "The Machinist" here, a dash of "Inception" and "The Matrix" there, stir with a bit of "Moon"), but for my money it's found a way to ring a kind of chamber version on the themes of its influences in a way that's just as resonant, at a fraction of the cost. "Somnio" may be relatively short on special effects budget, but it's long on ideas and imagination.

(104 minutes)

Rating: ***1/2

I am advised that, screening as a rough cut, "Somnio," won "Best Screenplay" at the Boston Science-Fiction Film Festival and "Audience Favorite" at Fantastic Cinema Film Festival in Little Rock. The completed version also screened at Sci-Fi-London. The filmmakers hope to secure distribution in mid-July.  See below for further information.

The website for "Somnio"
The imdb page for "Somnio"
"Somnio"'s Facebook page

 

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Monday
May302016

Chicago Critics Film Festival week in review

Over an alternately gorgeous and stormy week in late May, I digested several days' worth of films at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Even so, I didn't get to see everything (wish I could have made it to that film about David Byrne's Contemporary Color event). Now that the dust has settled, I'd offer the following comments on what I did get to see. Most of these films will see release in the coming months. A doff of the hat to the curators of the fest, Brian Tallerico, Peter Sobczynski, Collin Souter, Eric Childress, Steve Prokopy, and Nick Allen. They do this not for money, but for the love of these films. There wasn't one screening where someone didn't implore us from the stage to get out there and spread the word about these movies. Quite apart from the question of whether or not one admires each individual selection, that's to be applauded.

Morris From America

Written and directed by Chad Hartigan (“This is Martin Bonner”), this sweet, affecting comedy/drama features newcomer Markees Christmas as Morris, a big, shy adolescent coming of age as the only African-American teenager in Heidelberg, Germany, where his single dad (a tough, tender Craig Robinson) is a soccer coach. As played by Robinson, he's struggling with the line between being a dad and being a friend, particularly since Morris' mom died young. The movie centers on his unrequited crush on a rebellious, sexually precocious teen (Lina Keller), who enjoys messing with him. Is she really his friend, or does she just keep him around to needle her bigoted mother, or even because she fetishizes him? A monologue by Robinson while driving a prodigal Morris home, late in the film, is the best thing I've seen him do. Instead of lecturing Morris, he tells him a story, and it expresses love, frustration, nostalgia, shared loneliness, and quavering vulnerability. Like all of us, this dad's making it up as he goes along. Carla Juri plays Morris' kind, well-intentioned German tutor. Morris is an aspiring rapper, and there's a misunderstanding when she goes through his notebooks--the place he lets his mind roam unfettered--and mistakes the violently misogynistic tropes he borrowed from his rap heroes as the products of a disturbed teen mind. As Hartigan affirmed in the Q&A after the film, he likes to leave room in his movies for scenes that don't necessarily advance the main story. It allows the picture to breath. 

Rating: ***1/2

Goat

Directed by Andrew Neel, and written by Neel with David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, this sickening drama is harrowing, incisive, and ultimately unforgettable. It is based on a memoir by Brad Land. As played by a well-cast Ben Schnetzer, he is a kind, affable, thoughtful guy whom we first meet at a frat party. He's not really comfortable, whereas his brother, played by Nick Jonas, fits right in. After the party, he agrees to give some strangers a lift, and he is robbed and gratuitously beaten. Ashamed that he didn't fight back, this gentle man must now prove to himself he's a man, subjecting himself to the trial by fire of "Hell Week," a ritual of sick hazing, pledging the frat where his brother is now a made man. (Unlike the other frat boys, Brad doesn't relate to women as sex objects: in fact, during a hook-up, his professions of love actually freak the woman out.) Brad's roommate is a soft guy, well played by Danny Flaherty; when he also pledges the frat, the big boys pounce, sensing weakness, yet he proves to have pluck. Gus Halper plays the rich frat boy overseeing Hell Week, smug and entitled. He's the villain of the piece, yet he's troubled; even his character is given shades of gray in the acting and the writing. The hazing scenes are very, very hard to watch. The movie's a study of sadism, a look at the the ground floor level of an American culture where brutalizing others is the hallmark, from top to bottom. As the big brother, Jonas becomes increasingly alarmed by the depravity, until he stands up against it--even though it means going against the code of always standing with your "brothers." The picture features an unforgettable cameo from James Franco, playing a brother from the class of 2000 who drops by, just to hang. The scene is a concise portrait of how these guys end up, and it neatly encapsulates the film's pathos and critique. A disturbing work, I almost want to think of "Goat" as a "Straw Dogs" for our times. The most powerful piece of cinema I saw at CCFF, it was also the hardest to watch.

Rating: ****

Shorts Program 1:

Voyagers (Santiago Menghini, 2015)

Featuring actual footage of Jupiter and Mars taken by the Voyager satellites, this film filled me with wonder and awe. Cinema can still renew those feelings in us, but too rarely does. Sent out by NASA decades ago, some alchemy of human science, hope and prayer, the two Voyagers had their twin trajectories projected out years in advance. There's something very hopeful about that, the idea that at some distant year, if all goes to plan, our inventions will intersect with Jupiter, or Mars. I like to think of them out there, even now, making their way above us.

Bajo las Brasas (Beneath the Embers) (Veronica Jessamyn Lopez Sainz, 2015) 

It profiles a young woman from a poor farming community in Guanajuato, the first one in her family to go to school. In just a few minutes, we get a sense of her hopes and dreams. I happened to meet the cinematographer, Julio Abraham Padillo Sanchez, when he hove up beside me during my walk to the theater. Turned out he'd flown in from Mexico just for this film. Nice guy, and his shots of the Sierra mountains and their farming people contained hard beauty. Julio told me of the Guanajuato International Film Festival, which I'd never heard of.

Greener Grass (Paul Briganti, 2015)

With its capacity to surprise, this unsettling comedy took me back to my days studying experimental film. Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe star as soccer moms sitting in the sun in the bleachers, but there's darkness under the surface. It's in the way their teeth are covered in these horrifying, festering grilles--yet you have to get in really close to see them. It's as if Bunuel went to the suburbs and met some attractive people who might have stepped out of the Stepford Wives, or the Martian Chronicles. Just below their surface manners, these sunny suburban lives roil with quiet desperation, jealousy, and anxiety, at a fever pitch of straight-up insanity. Whether or not you think that's fair, the film's bizarrely funny. At the Q&A, DeBoer and Leubbe shared the secret of how they got that puking-up-picnic-sandwiches shot.  

Bacon and God's Wrath (Sol Friedman, 2015); 

A 90-year-old lady decides it's time to go off her Kosher diet and try bacon for the first time. Raised under the proscriptive rule of harsh, Orthodox rabies, she tells us she recently began looking at the Internet, in search of Julia Child recipes. Soon she went down a wormhole and discovered Christopher Hitchens. Liking the cut of his jib, she became an atheist under Hitchens' plummy-toned influence. A decapitated pig's head becomes her dining-room-table interlocutor: can she really do this? It may seem a small rebellion against the universe, eating bacon, but in another way, she's sloughing off a lifetime of received, repressive beliefs. 

Curmudgeons (Danny DeVito, 2016) 

The most moving few minutes of the fest, for me. A woman (Lucy DeVito) is nervous: she's about to have an audience with her curmudgeonly grandfather (the late David Margulies) at his (really quite nice) assisted living facility. What unfolds from there is some straight talk about life, and then a surprise. These are some true New York characters. Lets just say it's about love. Tears streamed down my face.

Peacock (Ondrej Hudecek, 2015)

I won't forget this spiky, perverse story chronicling the childhood and youth of Ladislav Stroupežnický, a "legend of Czech realism" I'd never heard of. This portrait of the playwright as a young, gay man in the latter half of the 19th century is a graphic tale of forbidden love, shocking the bourgeoisie, and acts of violence perpetrated upon others and his own person. In some strange way, the film had a similar effect on me as looking at a Bacon painting.

Back to the features... 

War on Everyone

Having set his first two pictures, "Cavalry" and "The Guard," in Ireland, writer/director John Michael McDonagh hops across the pond, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for this comedy. It's a riff on the crime/action/buddy picture. It boasts a fun dynamic between Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård as a kind of corrupt Starsky & Hutch: the former's a family man, the latter's a flailing, wounded drunk. They're bad boys, but they're good-bad, not evil. (Paul Reiser is here as the inevitable by-the-books boss who just can't keep his boys from breaking all the rules.) They go around stealing from, snorting with, and beating on the baddies. What they do is justified, and funny, we are meant to see, because the other guys are worse. Even if you don't buy that, the film is saved from Guy Ritchie-level cheap nihilism by two things: a literate script that respects our intelligence, and the picture's steeping in noir tradition, where the rough stuff was part of the deal. I think of the moment when the boys storm in on Tessa Thompson, looking for her boyfriend, a gangster who happens to be a Quaker (he "abhors violence"). After the boys paste him one, she observes, without much emotion, words to the effect of, don't be so hard on him, he's an okay guy. This is the sort of unsentimental dame that might have stepped out of "The Big Sleep," as could the movie's twisty, labyrinthine plot. Every character has an unexpected side, whether it's Pena's wife (Stephanie Sigman) citing the Aeneid, or Thompson reading a bit of Susan Faludi by the pool. We get colorful assorted rogues played by the likes of David Wilmot and Malcolm Barrett. There's a truly chilling, evil pair of baddies, partners in a porn ring: Theo James is the boss, Byronic in his rich, decadent debauchery, and Caleb Landry Jones is his henchman, a truly disturbing, reptilian screen presence. At the Q&A afterwards, Pena told us McDonagh's intended audience is movie buffs who like to play spot-the-reference. Maybe so, because in this one unsavory Landry Jones persona, Karolyn and I saw "Clockwork Orange," the Scorpio Killer in "Dirty Harry," and Buffalo Bill from "Silence of the Lambs." 

Rating: ***

Beauty and the Beast

Directed by Christophe Gans, this live-action version of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's mid-1700s fairy tale stars Léa Seydoux (of "Blue is the Warmest Color") as the Beauty, and Vincent Cassel as the Beast. On the big screen, which is how it should be seen, this sumptuous French film (2014) can be breathtaking. There's a vast valley crowned by a great crumbling castle, and, in dreams of the past, we get to see it restored to its former eye-popping glory. The depth of the image can be spellbinding, and the vivid colors please the eye. I usually don't go in for a lot of CGI, and at times that created a bit of dissonance--parts of the film seemed geared to children (the cute, google-eyed CGI creatures), others aimed squarely at adults (the moment when a rivulet of blood runs down a naked woman's back). At times, it even felt like a comic-book movie. Ultimately, though, Gans' film shows how tools like CGI and set design can be marshaled imaginatively, even poetically, to bring a magical storybook world to the screen. It's a worthy entry in the tradition that includes the Cocteau version, still one of cinema's miracles, to which it makes many visual nods.
Rating: ***1/2
 

My Blind Brother

Written and directed by Sophie Goodhart, this sweet rom-com casually sidesteps formula. Adam Scott plays the titular blind brother of the character played by Nick Kroll, who has dedicated a big chunk of his life to being yoked to his brother, acting as his "eyes" in his various feats-for-charity, when he'd really rather by lying on the couch, watching television. The twist: though the blind man is regarded, by the media and his parents, as a brave hero for, say, running a marathon for charity, he's actually kind of a knob. Jenny Slate and Zoe Kazan play friends who are also housemates. Through a misunderstanding, Slate begins dating the blind brother, concealing from him (and herself) her love for her true soulmate--the slacker brother, with whom she had a drunken one night stand. From scene to scene, this modest gem never feels artificial or manipulative. It's about being honest with yourself. At one point, after a bitter argument when all their tensions come to a head, Kroll believes his brother lost at sea. He takes out a rowboat and goes looking for him, calling out in desperation, "Where are you, beautiful baby boy?" The moments demonstrates how this movie shows, rather than tells. When it comes to drawing the relationships amongst its characters, that moment tells us everything we need to know about the underlying lifelong bond between these brothers. It's small touches like that stick with one--that make a movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Under the Shadow

I cannot improve on the comments of my wife, Karolyn, after we huddled together in our seats in the face of Babak Anvari's horror film from Iran. Watching it in the theater in the late afternoon, she said, 'twas not so scary. At 2 a.m. that night, it became the most terrifying film she'd ever seen. When we compared notes in the morning, I revealed I'd been visited by it in the night as well. It's sense of dread gets into your bones. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, a woman (Narges Rashidi, whose eyes telegraph bone-deep distress) wrestles with gender-based limits, roles, and duties after her husband is called away for medic duty to a dangerous region. "Repulsion"-style psychological crack-ups to house and soul ensue, as she is confined to the apartment with her daughter, and the region endures frequent bomb scares. Along with the stress and guilt of single parenthood, she also must deal with the psychological toil of repression--she was not allowed to study to become a doctor herself because of past political activity, and the new fundamentalists arrest her for immodest dress when she tries to make a break for it without covering her hair. All the claustrophobic elements of the haunted house film are here: the shudder of something passing just out of the corner of the eye, the sound of footsteps where there should be none. There's a missing doll; a daughter in peril; a mute, ghostly boy. The picture taps into the primal--from the death of one's mother to the myth of the djinn. When it comes to the djinn, the picture is also about class distinctions. The modern, educated class, to which Rashidi's character belongs, dismisses the myth of the djinn; the lower, uneducated class has an implacable faith in it. This is the sort of film where the sudden appearance of a medical textbook, or a doll, in a place where it just should not be can be scarier than any monster.  

Rating: ****  

Little Men

Ira Sachs' films have the precision of literary fiction, and they try to give you a similarly rich reflection of life, its contradictions and compassion. His "Love is Strange" was one of my favorites of 2014, and here he is with another New York story. It's a drama featuring layered performances from Greg Kinnear as a rather unsuccessful actor in mid-life and Jennifer Ehle as his wife, a doctor. After Kinnear's father dies, they move into the apartment building he left them. Talia Balsam plays the woman with a dress shop in the building, which is in a gentrifying neighborhood. Michael Barbieri plays her son, the working-class Brooklyn boy who dreams of being an actor, and Sachs holds his camera at length on a fascinating scene involving an exercise with the boy's acting teacher. Theo Taplitz is Kinnear's son, the artistic, perhaps gay boy who dreams of going to art school. Kinnear's dad had never raised the rent on the dress shop, but the days of cheap rents are over, and it leads to an awkward situation: Kinnear has no choice but to raise the rent, and the seamstress has no intention of trying to pay. It's full of the messy realities that are the province of adult life, as viewed through the eyes of kids. And Sachs takes children seriously, meaning he doesn't infantilize them, instead treating them as human beings. In fact, no one wears the black hat in Sachs; that was intentional, he told us in the Q&A. You could see the seamstress as a victim of gentrification, except the film won't let you: she is recalcitrant, unreasonable, proud, and even a bit mean (if honest). The boys' friendship deepens during their parent's feud, and at one point they simply refuse to speak to their parents. At the Q&A afterwards, Sachs cited Ozu, and specifically his "kids on strike" pictures, as well as Pialat as two of his main influences. 

Rating: ****

In a Valley of Violence

Written, directed and edited by Ti West, this is a violent revenge Western with a comic twist. Not counting "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," which we saw as a screener, this was Karolyn's and my favorite film of the fest. It's another genre riff, and it's so entertaining--pure devilish movie fun. As it begins, we note Ethan Hawke is doing a riff on Clint Eastwood's "mysterious stranger" persona from those great, violent Leone spaghetti Westerns. When the credits roll, we note they're...an homage to spaghetti Westerns, as well. Then the score, by Jeff Grace, kicks in, and it's an homage to Ennio Morricone, Leone's great composer. Just when we're starting to think, well, even an homage needs something original, this story starts taking off in all sorts of unexpected directions, as Hawke and his dog, Abigail (played by the excellent Jumpy, in one of the best pooch performances committed to film), enter a classic godforsaken frontier town and, in the saloon, meet a none-too-bright loudmouth with a chip on his shoulder (James Ransone). As it turns out, the movie intends to take the very bread and butter of the Spaghetti western--vengeance and violence--and comment on the essential absurdity of it all. Ransone is the weak son who starts it all by picking a fight with Hawke. John Travolta is the Marshall who runs the town, and who tries to clean up after his hothead boy. He tries to be the voice of reason: he knows his son is an asshole. As the only intelligent one in this group of baddies, Travolta is a hoot to watch. So is Taissa Farmiga as a plucky motor-mouth smitten with Hawke, and Karen Gillan as her duplicitous sister. At the Q&A afterwards, West said he feels we are not living in cinematic times, and so he purposefully shot this on 35mm, setting out to give us a big, cinematic experience. He's succeeded: the picture's a wild, fun ride.   

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Friday
May202016

Chicago Critics Film Festival, 2016 (May 20-26)

This weekend is shaping up to be an eventful one for Chicago's cinema connoisseurs. The Chicago Critics Film Festival is back, now in its fourth installment; its mission is to "replicate the international festival experience in Chicago." Our local intrepid film critics have ventured out into the big wide world, to the biggest festivals--Sundance, South by Southwest, Berlin, Toronto. Now, the treasure hunters have returned to present us with a curated collection of the jewels they discovered.

For those of us who always dreamed about what a day at one of the international festivals would be like, this Sunday, in particular, sounds like an opportunity to experience such a day right her in our own backyard, "careening from Iran to New Zealand to New York City to France, emerging on the other side exhausted but supremely satisfied" (in the words of RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico, co-producer of the event). It should be exhilarating to ride this "roller coaster." My full pass in hand, I'm ready to strap in.

I've had a chance to review three films on the schedule. All three are recommended film experiences: funny, moving, sometimes even illuminating. The Herzog is, I think, pretty nearly essential viewing. Chockfull of ideas, it's by turns exhilarating and terrifying. It can send shivers down your spine, proposing that we are living in an era in which we're experiencing nothing less than a shifting definition of what it means to be human. The full fest slate can be found here.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Here's a cheeky, heartwarming, rousing comedy/adventure from Taika Waititi, who co-directed "What We Do In the Shadows," one of the delights of last year. It takes us deep into the jungle-like forests of the vast New Zealand bush. Chubby juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a "real bad egg," in the opinion of the evil social-services agent (Rachel House) who dumps him at his foster home on the edge of the bush. Met by his new foster mom, kind Bella (Rima Te Wiata), Ricky's not impressed with the new digs, until, hoving into view, he espies Bella's husband Hec (a crusty, laconic Sam Neill, salty and great). A sort of Hemingway of the bush, Hec is first glimpsed carrying a rifle with a boar slung over his back. Pretty soon our unlikely heroes, and their pooches, are on the run through the bush, trying to escape a manhunt. The rebels become unlikely folk heroes. (When uttered, the name is almost always "Ricky Baker" in full, as if the boy is a legend.) They meet colorful characters in the bush: a happy, unconventional family; the cheerful "Psycho Sam (a fun turn by Rhys Darby). The feeling of wide open space, of wilderness and mountains and sky and lakes, is amplified by Waititi's wonderful musical choices. These include splendid use of Nina Simone"s "Sinnerman" and dramatic deployment of Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan." The movie's sentiment is always leveled with saltiness, its sweetness cut with vinegar. It's got overtones of "Babe" and "Up"--and even, in Ricky Baker's imagination, "Lord of the Rings." Late nods to "Mad Max" and "Thelma and Louise" are perhaps not seamlessly integrated, yet "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is a delightful ode to nonconformity and wildness. (101 minutes).

Rating: ***1/2 

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog's meditative documentary is about "one of the biggest revolutions we as human beings are experiencing": The Internet. It permeates everything, but is it evolution or devolution? There's the good of the Internet, as shown by an on-line community of gamers who collectively design molecules, thereby solving puzzles that had stymied cancer researchers. There's the bad: addictions, unspeakable cruelty. Deep critical thinking is lost as we build machines to think for us. We meet people ultra-sensitive to radiation, whose lives were ruined when wireless towers went up. Now, they have congregated in "a town without the Internet": Green Bank, West Virginia, the home of one of the world's largest radio telescopes. It awaits transmissions from outer space--perhaps, as Herzog muses, listening for Elvis. New wonders are on display, from driverless cars to autonomous soccer-playing robots. (Of the robot he helped create, Herzog asks an engineer: "Do you love it?" It's the kind of question only Herzog would ask, and "Yes!" is the immediate, delighted reply.) A flare from the sun, or even a hurricane, could wreak havoc with the Internet, pitching civilization into chaos. Or, such a disaster could be man-made: we meet a security analyst who defended Sandia National Laboratories from the greatest Cyberwar attack ever launched (the poetically named Titan Rain). It's all very perilous, but Herzog seems cheerful. After all, a company called Spacex is working on taking people to Mars. In my favorite moment, Herzog casts his eye across the beautiful skyline of Chicago. Noting that it appears "devoid of inhabitants," he muses that we must assume that everyone has left for Mars. Then, looking back on the city from the lakeside walkway leading to Adler Planetarium, he espies what he calls "stragglers left behind": a group of monks in their orange robes, all gazing into their cell phones, as Elvis sings "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on the soundtrack. It's an instance of what Herzog's rich body of documentaries have that too many lack: transcendent imagination. (98 m)

Rating: ****1/2

 

Life, Animated

Ron Suskind is a well-regarded journalist, and this heart-wrenching documentary, directed by Roger Ross Williams, tells the story of how his family used Disney films to reach his autistic son, Owen. When he was three years old, Owen "vanished": his parents speak in terms of a kidnapping, though his body was right there. Diagnosed with autism, Owen went five years either being completely silent or mumbling gibberish. The specter arose that he might never speak again. One night, quite by accident, Ron hit on a discovery. Putting on his son's Jafar puppet, he had his first ever conversation with his son--as Jafar and Iago from "Aladdin." It was a revelation: he's still in there, says his dad. He's in a prison of autism, and we need to pull him out. Speaking to him in Disney dialogue become their way of bringing him out of the darkness. (Owen particularly loves the Disney sidekicks, like Jafar and Sebastian, the little crab from "The Little Mermaid." A skilled artist, he can draw them all, in their hundreds). As his dad says, what they finally understood is that he's using that world to make sense of our world. When we meet Owen, he is a jovial, funny young man with some tics and a wonderfully expressive face. He is a kind of cinephile: he's memorized ever single Disney animated film. It's a kick to watch him watch Disney, to see the wonder he feels. He gives himself over so completely to that world, laughing and shouting out lines. The scene in which Owen shows "The Lion King" to a class of other developmentally disabled people is a testament to the transportive power of cinema like nothing since "Sullivan's Travels," when those prisoners became helpless with laughter watching Mickey Mouse. Will an autistic person always be dependent? Can Owen lead a meaningful life? We follow him as he is on the cusp of graduating and going out into the world as an independent man. His parents' non-condescending, bone-deep love for Owen is deeply moving, and the visual and aural editing of this film is a real feat, weaving the vivid world of Disney into the tapestry of Owen's life. Evocative use is made of original drawings and animation. There's a moment I can't stop mulling over. Speaking to the camera, Owen's mom recalls the evening Ron turned to her and asked the key question: "So who decides what a meaningful life is?" (92 m)

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Tuesday
May172016

From This Day Forward

If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then this timely, personal documentary (2015) proves the happy ones can be pretty unique, as well. How does a family stay together when one person changes their identity profoundly in certain respects, while remaining "still me" in others? It has something to do with forgiveness, and everything to do with love. Sharon Shattuck directed this portrait of the marriage of her parents, Trisha and Marcia. Her father, Trisha, came out as a trans woman when Sharon was going through adolescence, and her kid sister was even younger. (My dad grew a mustache when my sister and I were teens, and we found that traumatic enough.) As her own wedding day approaches, she reflects on her parents' union, and the picture becomes a meditation on the bond of marriage itself: two people becoming one, transcending their physical bodies in some sense.

Understated and respectful in tone, this film probably could not have been made, I imagine, absent the trust inherent in the family relationship. Shattuck's probing of Trisha, seeking to understand her dad's decision to transition into a woman, despite the chance it would tear the family apart, is gentle but occasionally painful. Trisha and Marcia seem like essentially private people, and here they are talking about their most private, intimate decisions, fingering old wounds.

  

When we meet her, Trisha's habit is to adopt signifiers of "masculine" or "feminine" depending on how she feels like expressing herself on a given day. Gender is still in flux for her. She might wear a skirt one day, a cowboy hat the next. Her white hair is cut short. In family photos, though, we see her during Shattuck's teen years, when she presented as a full-on--and really rather striking--woman, with flowing long hair.

Her's dad's quite a character, really, even a bit of a ham for the camera, as Shattuck notes in the film's press package. She's got "joie de vivre." I think of her taking part in a jam session with family and friends, happily sawing away on her fiddle. At other times, she struggles to keep happiness from slipping through her fingers, and finds it as fleeting as any of us do.

Marcia is a vibrant woman with bright eyes and an open-hearted smile. Family photos show hers to have been a life filled with laughter, but not without the heartbreak and pain that visits every life. After Trisha first came out, Marcia decided she had no choice: they would divorce. Then, in some way that seems mysterious even to them, their bond seems to have grown even stronger.  

Together, they show what "together through life" really means. In their hard-won union, we may even feel we glimpse the secret to the making of a long-term, successful marriage. Apparently, laughter helps.

This film serves as a showcase for Trisha's striking "abstract expressionist" paintings, as well. Shattuck fills the screen with her dad's artwork. (Like anyone, Trisha, a landscape architect by trade, would prefer to be known for her work, not reduced to an instance of a type.) I like her paintings very much. Some are disquieting. It's like peering through windows into her unconscious, and she "reads" them for us, illuminatingly. In one, an unhappy clown looks straight at us, and his scared eyes speak volumes about what it feel like to be an imposter in your own skin. To feel trapped in there.

If I say "From This Day Forward" could be screened at a community center or a church, I do not mean that pejoratively. Quite the reverse: it's a way of saying the film is not just preaching to the converted. Nor does it shy away from risking potential audience discomfort or disorientation. By inviting us to get to know her father, Shattuck has made a film not about "transgender issues" in a general sense, but about a specific person and her concrete story. In the way she presents her parents and their relationship to viewers, Shattuck's film adopts her parent's approach: we're just us, take it or leave it. When she interviews neighbors in their small Michigan town, we are pleased when they accept Trisha. "I don't care who a person is, as long as they're good," one says. I've got to hope and believe most Americans would agree with that sentiment.

When it comes to identity and love and acceptance, this thought-provoking film leaves us with much to chew on. You could even put it on the shelf next to "The Crying Game." Without seeking to be flip, there's a way in which Osgood's wonderful final line from "Some Like It Hot"--his response to the big reveal ("I'm a man!")--is profoundly on-point: "Well, nobody's perfect." 

"From this Day Forward" screens at Facets Cinémathèque, May 20-26.

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Sunday
May152016

The Family Fang

 

 

 "The Family Fang" is a droll pleasure, a poignant comedy-drama about a brother and sister raised by radical performance artists, Caleb and Camille (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). Director Jason Bateman sustains a tone deftly balanced between the serious and the wry, no mean feat. The siblings, Annie and Baxter ("A" and "B"), were essentially props in their parents' art pieces. These were comic provocations that in reality would have had the parents thrown in the clink, the kids seized by DCFS. (It's almost as if the whole act of "having kids" is in quotation marks for them.) As the film opens, we witness one such stunt play out. Little Baxter robs a bank with a toy gun, then shoots "the bank guard" (dad). Stage blood spews as patrons look on, expressions of horror morphing into "Huh?" The blood is syrup, and it tastes good--as a final touch, Baxter runs a finger through a pool of it and enthusiastically pops the coated digit in his mouth. You can almost sense a future downpayment on a boat for a budding therapist somewhere.  

One source of the film's comedy is the twist that Caleb and Camille wanted to raise their kids to reject society's values, not internalize them, as parenting has more traditionally been conceived. Or Caleb did, more than Camille: he's really more the ideologue of the two. If you're going to do art, he declares, you must put everything you've got into it, and it should be risky and subversive. He is not a fan of the work the kids ended up doing as adults. Annie (Nicole Kidman) became a movie star of mainstream Hollywood fare, albeit one who's now flailing, no longer the "it" girl--her erratic behavior is increasingly tabloid fodder. Baxter (Bateman) became a novelist, although at present he's been reduced to profiling a bunch of yahoos who have invented a "spud gun." As the name implies, it shoots potatoes; turns out it's kind of a blast shooting it off in the cornfields, until, as they say, laughing turns to crying, in an accident that sets the movie in motion. 

In the story's present-tense stream, Camille and Caleb have disappeared, gone missing from a rest-stop along a stretch of highway where there had been a rash of murders; blood was found all over the scene. Annie and Baxter are back at the ancestral manor, where Annie watches videotapes of the family's old stunts--these are sort of what passes for home movies, in this family. She's looking for clues. Is this just their boldest "work" yet--the prank to end all pranks--as Annie believes, or are they really dead, as Baxter believes? They have left clues, she insists to Baxter, and we just have to find them. She even has a cork board, replete with diagrams and pictures, just like in the police shows.  

 Somehow in tone even more than in content, the film, for me, evoked Salinger's stories of the family Glass. (It's based on a novel by Kevin Wilson.) In the scenes set in the present, the "kids" move through the shadows and the sunny rooms of the big, empty house of their childhood. A warm hue tinges the scenes set in the past, implying that the unconventional childhood wasn't all bad. Sometimes they really were that merry, close band of thieves, just as Caleb imagined they were. (Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn play the parents when the kids were young.) 

Whimsical revolutionaries, Caleb and Camille conceived of their art as delightful bids to wake people up--social criticism taken to the streets. They're putting a little excitement into people's lives. There's a bit of contempt for people in the vision: the sheep need to wake up. An unpredictable combustion of the theatrical and "real life," the "pieces" are astonishingly tone-deaf, not to say cruel, on the level of consideration for the psychic consequences for the people they were supposedly enlightening; on the level of conception and execution, they achieve the intended mind-fuck. In certain circles, Caleb and Camille are famous. (I savored a scene in which two art critics (Scott Shepherd and Steve Witting) wind each other up by debating the genius-or-junk merits of the Fangs' work.)  

We do get the impression the pranks were occasional things for Annie and Baxter--that for the most part, theirs was a more typical upbringing of school and a big rambling house. That said, there is a scene involving Annie and Baxter's school production of "Romeo and Juliet" I won't forget. I won't reveal it, except to say it somehow fulfills all their parents' ambitions of showing people something truly beautiful and utterly scandalous at once.  

Even as seniors, Caleb and Camille still wage war against the complacencies of capitalist/consumer society, though the culture has long since absorbed all such resistance. In a funny scene, they try to prank the clerks at a fast food stand by handing out fake coupons for free sandwiches, but the workers passively, cheerfully honor the faux documents. Caleb is outraged: nobody even has the decency to understand they're being hoodwinked anymore--to get mad about the illusory constructs of the society, thereby taking the first steps towards liberating themselves from them. Such resistance is no longer even a concept.

As Annie, Nicole Kidman gets a role that's a wink at her own career's vicissitudes. What a deft performer she is in the key of comedy/drama. Think of her turn not only in this film, but in "Margot at the Wedding."

As Camille, Plunkett telegraphs so much that's unspoken: the hurt, the sacrifice, the guilt about what she had to do--essentially, sacrifice the kids as art projects as a way of making Caleb interested enough to stay. At times when she looks at him she's humoring him; sometimes it's with pity; and always with love. And, yes, fear. She hides her own own paintings, for fear they would be seen as a betrayal by this imperious, stubborn, brilliant man. Walken's well-cast as Caleb, and together they ring true as a longtime couple.  

In a way, Plunkett's Annie shows what a woman gives up for the male "artiste," just as Kidman's Annie is a satirical look at what a woman has to put up with in Hollywood. (There's a scene where a wheedling director tries to cajole a recalcitrant Annie into appearing topless, and she turns the tables in a way that her dad, for one, digs.)

Bateman's always had fine comic timing as an actor, making even dire movies watchable. With his second feature as a director (I've not seen "Bad Words"), he shows he has it as a director, as well. Perhaps a narrative seam or two shows, but overall he makes nary a wrong step. He's truly good with actors, and he's got visual style--an autumnal one that suits the film's bittersweet flavor. 

There is a wise acceptance in his film. In the glances between brother and sister, and husband and wife, we are witness to people seeing each other for who they really are, and accepting each other as such. Up to a point, that is. "The Family Fang" has a mystery plot, but it's wise enough to know that the real mystery may be precisely those human beings we love the most, whose lives shaped ours in ways too complicated to suss out. There will always be something about them will remain out of reach, unknowable. Why we did what we did can be a mystery, even to ourselves.

In essence, it's the story of a sister and a brother in middle-age, and the bond forged between them in the crucible of a dysfunctional family. (As much as their childhood was the source of their baggage, it's the source of their creativity, as well.) Annie and Baxter would do anything for each other. You may put "The Family Fang" on the shelf alongside perceptive films about brothers and sister such as "The Savages" and "You Can Count on Me."  Of the films I've seen thus far in 2016, this is the one for which I feel the most affection.  

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)