Archive | July, 2015

Irrational Man

31 Jul

“Irrational Man,” the new movie from Woody Allen, is a hodgepodge of parts held together by an enigmatic protagonist – a swaggering nihilist who teaches philosophy and, despite a flabby, alcoholic paunch, invites much favor from attached women, even though he can’t get it up – and a finely nuanced performance by Joaquin Phoenix taking on that role. Phoenix’s Abe arrives to a small New England liberal arts institution (filmed in Rhode Island), where there is as much dread over Abe’s debauchery as there is awe over his revered mind and that one big book he published that made him a philosophical rock star.

073015i Irrational ManAbe gets himself into a love triangle faster than he can down a shot of bourbon or spout a lazy line about “mental masturbation.” On the faculty side he’s got Rita (Parker Posey, digging into the role nicely), semi-unhappily married and dreaming of wine and roses and dirty sex with a kindred miserable spirit. Rita’s counterbalanced by the fawnish Jill (Allen’s muse du jour, Emma Stone, so good in “Birdman” and proving that inclination correct here), a student with a jockish beau. Things go from mentor-student banter to inappropriate friendship even with clothes on. Abe, in all his louche self-loathing, has become the black hole of the campus. But then, near the nadir of his pontificating wretchedness, he finds an up.

Allen has been making movies for almost 50 years. The sardonic joys of “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and her Sisters” radiates across the decades, the self-deprecating nebbish new and relevant again in every generation. There’s no doubt to his genius, but recent years have seen change-ups in his works, some too hauntingly self-reflective or suggestive of refutations of public opinion of his media circus life behind closed doors (“Husbands and Wives”) and forays into Hitchcock (“Match Point”). His last truly great film was “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (before the whole fallout with longtime partner Mia Farrow), and while there have been flourishes of the unique and the old Woody (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Blue Jasmine”) there’s almost always a two off that seem unformed, and that the old Woody wouldn’t have done or developed more to a point. No matter – his output of a film a year is nothing less than impressive.

“Irrational Man” fuses the old quirky Allen – with sharp characters ensnared in the mundane and struggling to get out – with his more current predilection for Hitchcockian dabbling. It almost works, but in the denouement, stumbles (irrationally) and falls down the shaft of the absurd. If you don’t see it coming, it’s not because you weren’t paying attention, but because you were.

The Look of Silence

30 Jul

A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary "The Look of Silence." (Courtesy Drafthouse Films and Participant Media)

The Look of Silence,” the new movie from filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, delves into the same period of bloody unrest that marred Indonesia in the mid-1960s that his highly lauded 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing” plumbed, but from an entirely different angle.

“Killing,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, allowed the sadistic perpetrators behind the mass executions to put their own spin on their unconscionable deeds, but not without Oppenheimer’s subtle, yet biting illumination of the heinous nature of their transgressions and the unrighteous impunity they received from a capitulating government looking to bury the past and move on. “Silence,” by stark contrast, is the salving counter flow to “Killing,” a cathartic podium for the survivors and family of the victims who live with daily reminders of the ghastly past and the constant duress of a reoccurrence.

How Oppenheimer arrived at such a place of riveting paradox, ghostly horrors and egregious complacency is almost as compelling a story as the ones told in his films and the tumultuous history of the Islamic archipelago. As a college graduate in his 20s, Oppenheimer signed on with the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers to make a documentary somewhere in a developing nation to highlight workers’ rights violations on plantations and mass producing farms.

“It could have been anywhere,” the filmmaker recalls, “you’d think  South America or Africa, but I went to Indonesia.” While working on the documentary Oppenheimer found it difficult to get the workers, who were working under what the director calls “slave-like conditions,” to open up. “There were these thugs there that kept silencing them. The workers were really fearful and when someone finally said something they told me about 1965.”

Oppenheimer who studied filmmaking at Harvard and resides in Copenhagen, admittedly (at the time) didn’t know the full extent of the atrocities that lay in Indonesia’s bloody past. Back in the mid-1940s, the Dutch colony won its independence from the Netherlands after the island was released by the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. Its first president, Sukarno, a galvanizing hand in the quest for independence, would lead the country for nearly 20 years until the September 30th Movement, an attempted coup allegedly initiated by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) — there has been speculation of a plot from within the military — that would send the island nation into turmoil — something that the gripping historical drama, “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982), starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, captured quite well.  Continue reading

Southpaw

30 Jul

Lots of expectation here by pairing peaking star Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s compiled an eclectically impressive resume over the past decade or so (“Zodiac” and “Brokeback Mountain,” and let’s not forget the uber-creepy “Nightcrawler” oozing out from under a stone last year) with director Antoine Fuqua, who’s been all over the road (“Shooter,” “King Arthur” and “The Equalizer”) since making his mark with “Training Day” back in 2001. Fuqua has the gift of folding urban hip in seamlessly with the mainstream. His works possess auteur flourishes while notching much off the blockbuster checklist. In short, he’s an anomaly and a blessing during these dog days of summer.

072415i SouthpawAnd while that old dog might not want to learn a new trick, he might like to witness one, which is why “Southpaw” nearly disappoints – it’s about as clichéd a retread as you can ask for. The plot feels like something right out of a middle “Rocky,” with the champ on top before he loses it all in a single stroke and has to go toe-to-toe old-school in a dingy gym to get back to his regal perch. But because of the sharp partnering, “S’paw” dances around a lot more nimbly and entertainingly than its pat regime would otherwise indicate. It opens with a bouquet of roses for Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). They grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, met at a home for wayward kids and now he’s the light heavyweight champion of the world and they live in a spacious New York manse. Not to give too much away, but there’s a serious tumble that happens early on, and the people who were around Billy and getting paid large scatter, pretty much leaving him for dead in the aftermath. It’s the perfect spot for the venerable Forest Whitaker waltz-in as the reluctant Titus “Tick” Wills, a boxing gym owner and former pro trainer who now works only with troubled youth. To get an “in” with Tick, Billy’s gotta get back to the basics – no, not bobbing and weaving or defense (he never had much, and his face looks like a tomato at the end of most of his battles), but cleaning the toilets and getting clean and sober. That’s the launching point for a shot at the guy who took his belt and fairy-tale life (Miguel Gomez, trying hard to channel Mr. T’s menace). Continue reading

24 Jul

“He’s so gay” and “My gaydar is going off” are common phrases applied when sussing out a male who prefers males, but what triggers such a reaction? According to a participant in David Thorpe’s smug yet thought-provoking documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?,” the critical tell is all in the way you walk and talk. The latter, as the title implies, is a major concern of Thorpe’s – so much so that the self-described writer/journalist immerses himself in speech therapy.

072315i Do I Sound Gay?Thorpe’s impetus (and the film) comes after a traumatic breakup and subsequent train ride to Fire Island where, taking in all the high, nasally sounds around him, he comes to the realization that he and all of his fellow gay passengers “sound like a bunch of braying ninnies.” The inherent fear: Who will want to be with me if I sound so ridiculous? It’s affirmed by a bunch of buff young lads lazing on a beach who tell Thorpe if they wanted something high-pitched and effeminate, they’d be straight. The point is further hammered home by clips of locker room porn in which gridiron beefcakes pound away at each other issuing directives with the deep-throated machismo of a hetero hump.  Continue reading

Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot

24 Jul
<i>Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot</i>

As a hagiographic ode, Sebastian Dehnhardt’s documentary covers the life and career of Dallas Maverick’s all-world superstar, Dirk Nowitzki, from gangly kid in Würzburg, Germany, where he was often told he was “too small to play,” to NBA top gun. For such a rah-rah career-capping fist bump, The Perfect Shot offers enough surprises, insights and revelations to be more than just a Sports Center highlight reel.

Part of that comes in the fact that Dehnhardt is German too and has deep personal knowledge of Nowitzki’s roots and the history of basketball in their homeland, which was brought there in the ’30s, by an obsessive who went to America to encamp with the game’s founder, James Naismith. We catch up with Nowitzki, now in his mid-thirties, heading toward retirement and the Hall of Fame, at the doctor where we learn that most of his joints have severe ailments from the stress of the game. One teammate remarks that it’s amazing that Nowitzki is so stiff and gimpy yet can take the court and “drop in thirty or forty points, and [make] it look easy.”

One reason for that is Nowitzki’s longtime partnership with Holger Geschwinder, who’s been a mentor to Nowitzki since he was a teen and now serves as part of the Mavericks’ coaching staff. Their workout sessions are long, grueling ordeals during which Geschwinder—who teammate Vince Carter refers to as “the mad scientist”—is always looking for a new physiological or scientific (he has a physics background) means to give Nowitzki the edge. Geschwinder, Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle and rival Kobe Bryant all weigh in on conditioning, endless practice and execution. In his down time, Geschwinder seeks the object of the film’s title—a shot that’s not blockable and able to drop through the hoop without possibility of hitting and bouncing off the rim (which he calculates to require an arc of sixty degrees).  Continue reading

Tangerine

20 Jul

“Tangerine” is the kind of film you probably wouldn’t have seen five or 10 years ago. For one, it was shot on an iPhone 5s (several, actually) and stars two transgendered actors. The last mainstream – albeit indie – film to feature a transgendered main was “Transamerica” (2005), in which Felicity Huffman played the cross-gendered protagonist; she was deservingly nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category. “Tangerine” was clearly conceived and shot long before the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, but the conjunction of the two points to a fresh ripple in the zeitgeist.

071715i TangerineBeyond the tightly coiled energy of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who plays Sin-Dee, a motormouth streetwalker newly out of jail and anxious to catch up to her cheating beau, what makes “Tangerine” kick is the fantastic editing and scoring by Sean Baker, who also writes, directs and shoots. The combination boasts a kinetic buzz that simultaneously emulates and accents Sin-Dee’s vulnerable rage as she plows through trash-strewn streets and seedy alleys looking for Chester (James Ransone) who, as her bestie Alexandra (Mya Taylor) puts it, has taken up with “a real bitch, vagina and all, real bitch.” (If the word offends, skip “Tangerine.” because it’s dropped as frequently as the article “the”).

The film begins and ends in a doughnut shop in a gritty section of West Hollywood, but follows three threads: Sin-Dee, collaring the other woman, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) in the middle of a trailer park-esque sex party – a depraved scene down at a level reserved for the likes of (early) John Waters and Harmony Korine; Alexandra, wandering through the burnt-out industrial landscape worried about Sin-Dee and mixing it up with a few johns – she points out to one parsimonious trick that she’s “got a dick too” and is willing to throw down to collect her pay; and Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a married Armenian taxi driver who likes to perform oral on transgendered beings of the night. A meet-up with Chester becomes inevitable.

It also happens to be Christmas Eve, bringing into sharp focus the freedom, hopelessness and loneliness of life on the street. But as the frenetic climax comes, “Tangerine” slips up, losing some of its mojo – where there once hung a stocking stuffed with edginess and unpredictability, something like a JV Judd Apatow effort fills the sock.

No matter. What Baker has cooked up here with verve, can-do, vision and a stellar effort from a cast who feel like they genuinely inhabit the skins of their characters should register as a jewel of wonderment and is most certainly a promise of bigger things to come.

Cartel Land

9 Jul

The documentary “Cartel Land” from Matthew Heineman – and boldfaced produced by Kathryn Bigelow – is a stunning exposé of the lawless southwest along the U.S.-Mexican border, where the crystal meth drug trade thrives and vigilante forces on both sides of the fence try to stem it. It’s nothing short of “The Wild Bunch” meets “Traffic,” sans the cathartic denouement.

070915i Cartel LandHeineman gained a perilous unlimited access to his subjects; it might be more accurate to say he’s embedded. The film begins with the steamy nighttime capture of an outdoor meth lab where the brewers wear bandannas to conceal their faces from the camera – and the noxious vapors. They do what they do out of opportunity. “As long as god allows it, we make drugs,” one offers meekly. They learned how to make their cocktail from an American chemist and his son. (Maybe Walter White is still kicking around?)

From there we meet Tim “Nailer” Foley, who leads Arizona Border Recon and is listed as an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He and his posse are well-armed, skilled and intrepid and never seem all that extreme, though some of their philosophies on other races and their intermingling might gain Donald Trump’s assent. Foley is a man’s man in every sense, lean, angular, philosophical, survivor of a hard life and tragedy, and he’s charismatic to boot.

You could see “Nailer” in a Clancy novel or Peckinpah movie, as well as Dr. José Manuel Mireles, who across the divide leads a paramilitary Autodefensas group that liberates villages from the tyranny of the drug cartels. Mireles, tall, striking, with a broad mustache, looks something like Robert Ryan in “The Wild Bunch,” and when we meet him he seems to have the popularity and adoration that followed Pancho Villa. About the only ones who have issues with his bringing stillness and order to remote outposts are the drug dealers, kidnapers and Mexican authorities, who as Heineman has it look to be complicit with those corrupting agents – a point that doesn’t get well explored.

Foley’s reflection on his troubled past and the revelation that Mireles is a surgeon by day and a grandfather give depth to the men and their community, while chaotic scenes of gunfire – with Heineman right in the middle of it all filming – fill the screen. It’s gorgeously shot and a step up for Heineman, whose last doc, “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” was a heavy handed look at the ills of the medical/insurance industry. “Cartel Land” is much more organic and visceral, and the image cut by the two figures, both fearless and fighting their own righteous war, is legendary in scope, even if the pendulum or reality says differently.