Three of the women-directed entries for Best Foreign Language Film screened at AFI FEST in Los Angeles this weekend. Take a look at my roundup on Women and Hollywood’s blog on Indiewire.
Three of the women-directed entries for Best Foreign Language Film screened at AFI FEST in Los Angeles this weekend. Take a look at my roundup on Women and Hollywood’s blog on Indiewire.
Just returned from Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, where my favorite feature was Short Term 12, starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., and Kaitlyn Dever, and directed by Destin Cretton. I’m not the only one smitten with this little gem. It won the Audience Award at SXSW earlier this year, so it’s no surprise that it was such a hit in Birmingham, where it sold out and garnered an encore screening.
In a film about a foster care facility for teens, you expect to be hit over the head with the tragedies of a society that is often unable to protect its youth from their own dysfunctional families. You expect to cry, but you don’t expect to laugh or leave the theater feeling happy and inspired. To call this film “light-hearted” would be wrong. It’s not a comedy. Still, it takes the small moments of humor that occur among the staff and teens — a witty comment here, a break in a tense situation there — and turns our expectations upside down.
At the heart of this story is the change that sullen new admit Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) sparks in Grace (Brie Larson), the staff member who seems to be the glue of the facility. We don’t see directly the abuse these kids have received at the hands of unfit parents; instead we witness the intimate aftermath – a young man still angry at his mother, a staff member unable to open up to those closest to her about her own past. Sometimes the facility looks chaotic, but after a while you realize that so often, that is exactly what the healing process looks like. Short Term 12 doesn’t sugar-coat anything, but it is such a hopeful film, one that tells us that kids can recover, that they’re not alone, and that there’s hope for a happy, thriving adulthood after a childhood of pain.
Brie Larson is getting a lot of attention for her starring role as Grace, and she will probably get some deserved nominations. (You may recognize her as daughter Kate from United States of Tara.) Yet I was most intrigued by Keith Stanfield, who plays Marcus, a seventeen-year-old who writes his own hip-hop lyrics and knows he must leave the facility upon his next birthday. Stanfield has such a presence onscreen, not to mention the kind of eyes that would make for a fine romantic lead. He’s definitely one to watch, and I hope to see him in more films.
Playing now in L.A. and New York, Short Term 12 opens nationwide this Friday, August 30th, and releases to more theaters Sept. 6th. Click here for a list of locations. Don’t miss this one. It will hold a spot in the list of the best movies of 2013.
Juan Antonio Bayona is a dramatic horror director known for 2007’s The Orphanage. This fact made him the perfect choice to recreate the terrifying, real-life experiences of Spanish vacationer Maria Belon and her family, who were on holiday in Khao Lak, Thailand, when the South Asian tsunami struck on December 26, 2004.
This film tells the Belons’ story from the day of their arrival in Khao Lak through the tsunami and its immediate aftermath. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, parents of three young boys. In these roles, each gives an affecting, award-worthy performance. Also impressive is young Tom Holland, who plays Lucas, the eldest of the three boys. Much of the film rests upon his very capable tween shoulders, and he is solid as the heart of the film.
The Impossible has come under some criticism for portraying a European family in a sort of Hollywood exploitation of a tragedy that primarily affected Asians. However, it’s important to note that the film is a Spanish production, filmed in Spain and Thailand by a Spanish director, who chose to document the story of a Spanish family. The director and producers seem to have made the choice to film in English to allow their movie a wider audience than if it had been filmed in Spanish. (That said, there’s probably nothing wrong with urging English-speaking and / or European moviegoers to broaden their cinematic interests to include more subtitled films and films about non-European people.)
Even from the very beginning, subtle horror elements come through as sound is used to create an ominous tone. The most striking feature of this film is of course the portrayal of the initial wave itself, which we see from the point of view of those about to be struck by it. Following this is a harrowing sequence of underwater scenes from the point of view of mother Maria, as she is tossed by the surging waters and hit by debris, struggling to remain conscious and find the surface. According to Naomi Watts in a post-film Q&A in Los Angeles, it took an entire month of shooting in a water tank just to film this one scene. Its effect is overwhelming as it allows viewers to imagine in detail what this must have been like for those who experienced it.
Suffice it to say that this is not a film for the faint of heart. The film conveys Mother Nature’s grisly toll on the human body primarily through Maria’s dreadful wounds. In particular, one scene in the hospital reminds us that Bayona is a horror director, so audiences must be prepared for a bit of gore. Yet even the most grim scenes avoid feeling overdone. Instead, they are that much more chilling for their realism.
One might expect there to be little plot left after the initial blow of the tsunami, but this is hardly the case. As Maria finds herself alone with her eldest son in the muddy, debris-laden wasteland left by the water’s retreat, they find that there’s so much more to survival than just making it through the waves. To make matters worse, her husband and two younger sons are nowhere in sight. To say much more about the plot risks spoiling some of the film’s most interesting elements, and in fact, moviegoers might do well to see the film without viewing the trailer beforehand, as the trailer gives away some spoilers that the film itself doesn’t reveal until near its end.
Overall, the film documents a struggle of survivors that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. The scenes of interactions with other survivors along the way are inspiring, as in the frantic confusion, people try to help each other as best they can. Surprisingly, there are sparks of humor throughout. One scene in which a survivor lends another his phone will have audiences sobbing and chuckling at the same time.
Final Verdict: The Impossible is an extraordinary film, incredible in its visual achievements, its brilliant acting, its pacing, and its insertions of humor and hope within the catastrophe. It is a disaster narrative, equal parts horror and heart, but one that raises the genre to its highest level.
Unlike Donkey Kong, Wreck-It Ralph’s video game isn’t even named after him. All the glory goes to Fix-It Felix, Jr. (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer), “from the game Fix-It Felix, Jr.” and poor Ralph (John C. Reilly) is relegated to the trash heap. Even though he’s the game’s official villain, everyone knows Ralph’s not really “bad.” Smashing in windows is just his job. Still, he’s shunned in the after-hours social life of the game, partly because of his intimidating size and partly because of his tendency to wreck things by accident, even in his time off.
It’s exactly this “time off” that makes this film so much fun. Ralph’s world is part of an arcade where all the games are connected by Game Central Station, a sort of train station housed in a network of electrical cords and power strips, through which characters travel from game to game and socialize after their working day is over. In a bid to impress Felix and the others, Ralph embarks on a mission to Hero’s Duty, a first-person shooter game in which a tough sergeant, voiced by Jane Lynch, leads her army in a fight to the death against the monstrous Cy-Bugs.
“When did video games become so violent and scary?!?” Ralph wonders. Despite the fact that if you die outside your own game, you can’t be rebooted, Ralph is desperate to see if he can finally play the hero. Mayhem ensues, threatening not only Ralph but the entire arcade community.
Much of the film takes place in a Candy Land-inspired go-kart game called Sugar Rush, a gorgeous, finely-detailed Disney theme park ride waiting to happen.
Here, Ralph meets Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope, a wise-cracking Punky Brewster type who’s not allowed to race in the game because she’s a “glitch”. In Sugar Rush, Vanellope is taunted by the other characters (an assortment of adorable mean girls dressed like Strawberry Shortcake and friends), who fear that the glitch could cause their game to be shuttered. If the arcade owner puts the game out of order, all its characters will lose their jobs and end up on the streets panhandling like Q*bert.
Meanwhile, hot on Ralph’s trail through all his adventures is Fix-It Felix because, as he explains, “It’s my job to fix what Ralph wrecks.” McBrayer’s earnest Macon, Georgia drawl is the perfect compliment to Felix’s can-do attitude.
These animated worlds are imaginative and whimsical, and the film comes through especially vibrantly in 3D. It’s definitely a great film for kids, but even big kids who played video games in the ‘80s will recognize cameos by the likes of Pac-Man, Blinky, Q*bert, and Tapper.
Beyond the gaming references, there are brief momentary nods to Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Firefly, and even (if you still have Prometheuson the brain) Alien. The writing is funny and smart, and the ending offers a couple of nicely set-up twists. The film presents the feel-good message that heroism is not about winning tangible prizes but about helping outcasts in need and serving your community, even when your contribution goes unappreciated.
Final Verdict: With vivid animation, a lively storyline, and a top-notch cast, Wreck-It Ralph may be one of the year’s best animated features.
The first twenty minutes of the Andy and Lana Wachowski – Tom Tykwer epic Cloud Atlas are kind of like driving down a dark backroad at night. To enjoy it, you have to stop worrying about the curves ahead, focus on what’s in front of you and just go with it. Soon enough, six well-defined stories in six different time periods will come into view, dotted with odd connections that create cross-overs between narratives.
Chronologically, the first of these tales takes place in the Pacific Islands in the 1800s as Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) sails for home, accompanied by an all-too-accomodating doctor (Tom Hanks) and a stowaway slave (David Gyasi). Another takes place in 1936 as Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), separated from his lover Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), becomes the apprentice of famous musical composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent).
The next story finds journalist Louisa Rey (Halle Berry) in 1973 San Francisco, on the trail of a story so hot that corporate powers will kill to keep it quiet. In a 2012 narrative, a London publisher named Cavendish (Broadbent) escapes from a client’s thugs only to find himself a prisoner in a nursing home. Next is the futuristic 2144 chronicle, in which a rogue “fabricant” named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) learns the secrets surrounding her servile existence in the consumerist world of Neo Seoul. She’ll occupy a mythic position in another adventure taking place much later in the future, in the post-apocalyptic, agrarian community of Big Isle, in a date given as “106 Winters After the Fall.”
The film weaves in and out among these stories from moment to moment, and the fact that it’s not a confusing jumble owes itself to quite an achievement of directing and editing. In fact, each of these six worlds and their characters become more and more distinct as we move through the film.
As you’ve probably heard, many of the same actors play different characters in the separate stories, often rendered nearly urecognizable by make-up and costuming, so that the film becomes a sort of Where’s Waldo game of finding each actor in each story. Some actors play roles across racial barriers and some across gender ones, but it’s really Tom Hanks who is the most fun to watch, perhaps because no matter how much make-up you put on Tom Hanks, he is still immediately recognizable as Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks with messed-up teeth, Tom Hanks with a bad eye, Tom Hanks in ‘70s hair, Tom Hanks with gold chains and a big nose, Tom Hanks in ’80s drag… (no wait, that was something else).
The highlights of the film are the two futuristic stories, especially the vibrant techno-wonder of Neo Seoul. This 2144 story offers a visually spectacular marvel, complete with urban chase scenes and flying vehicles that look like mini Cylon raiders. Though the clone-versus-consumerism plot is hardly original, it sure is pretty (see Moon for a version that is less Blade Runner-inspired). Doona Bae’s Sonmi is especially interesting here as the innocent soul waking into a dark world. Hers is possibly the most moving performance of the film.
Also engaging is the world “After the Fall,” a futuristic speculation in some ways reminiscent of that of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Long after our technology has outstripped our good sense, we find ourselves in a primitive state, but one that is unlike any of the past because it bears the markings of our past technological dominance and its ravages. Some may find it difficult to follow Big Isle’s English-based dialect, in which “truth” is “true-true” and having a visitor is “spesh guest hostin.’” (Think Firefly on steroids.) Still, it’s an invitation to think about how languages change over time and to smile when you pick up a phrase.
Overall, film geeks are going to love the technical aspects of this film – the make-up, the CGI, the experimental structure, etc. Those who loved David Mitchell’s novel will enjoy seeing its stories come to life onscreen.
However, diehard fans of the book might do well to steel themselves for the possibility that the film may not appeal to the widest of audiences. Cloud Atlas is nearly three hours long, and in several places, it feels it. (Less than two hours in, the people sitting next to this writer muttered, “This is never going to be over!” and got up and left.) Part of the reason is that, as they are rendered in the film, four of the six stories just aren’t as interesting as we would like them to be. The 1849 story putters along until it lapses into predictability, and the 1930s musical partnership between Frobisher and Ayrs may be more geared toward sleepy indie theaters. The 1973 story about Louisa Rey’s investigation of a corporate cover-up is okay but plays more like an episode of a television crime show or a remake of The China Syndrome.
Cavendish being locked in a modern-day London nursing home is cute, but if you want a story about old people dealing with unexpected retirement housing issues, that story has been rendered better in another film this year. Novels have more time to flesh out their stories and connect us to their characters. In this film, though, we move through them so quickly that we don’t have time to become invested in many of the characters, except perhaps those of Hanks, because his roles create a recognizable character arc that transforms him throughout time.
Except that he makes the right choices in 1973 but still comes back as Dermot in 2012? Dear Karma gods, this seems unfair.
Another sign of a problem is that especially toward its end, the film is saddled with a succession of didactic voiceovers, as various characters explain to us “the lesson” of the interlocking narratives we have just witnessed. We are all connected. Karma’s a bitch. Slavery is bad. It sucks to be a clone. Something that can be portrayed with subtlety on the page can also be portrayed with subtlety on the screen, but that’s not what happens here. When the film has to break into the story to tell us what we should be learning from the story, it’s a sign that the meaning of the tale has perhaps taken a backseat to its bells and whistles. That said, the bells and whistles here are pretty impressive.
Final Verdict: The technical aspects of Cloud Atlas, its use of make-up and costuming and its experimental structure, will wow audiences. Its two futuristic narratives alone are worth the price of admission. However, some audiences will feel its length, because the four other stories move too quickly to allow full investment in their characters, and because the film’s philosophical message is more told than shown.
Chicken With Plums is the second film by writer-director duo Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, after their brilliant, animated film Persepolis, a coming-of-age tale based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel. Chicken With Plums is also based on a graphic novel by Satrapi, but it is set earlier, in 1958, pre-revolution Tehran, and its forlorn protagonist is musician Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric). During an argument, his wife (Maria de Medeiros) has smashed his beloved violin, and though he searches, no other instrument will allow him to call forth the same sound. Thus, he does what any reasonable man would do in such a situation: he decides to kill himself.
Nasser Ali takes to his bed, resigned to stay there until the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer) comes for him. At first glance it seems a dubious plot, but as the film takes us through moments in Nasser Ali’s past — his childhood, his unhappy marriage, and his earlier interludes with a lost love (Golshifteh Farahani) — it becomes clear why Nasser Ali has lost his will to live.
Chicken With Plums is the story of a tragic life, and it doesn’t offer solutions to its sadness. (We learn early on that our hero will indeed die.) It simply revels in it.
And it does so beautifully. Nasser Ali’s life story is told with all of the dark comedic wit that was present in Persepolis. In fact, humor so permeates this film that in many scenes one nearly forgets that the whole thing is about one man’s unfulfilled, wasted life. Pieces of his story and of the stories of his wife and children are presented one by one, and in non-chronological order. In some fun flash-forwards, for example, we are shown the future lives of his two small, adorable children, which will turn out to be amusingly worthless. Each story is so engaging that its chronological order seems unimportant. Still, it’s a delight at the end when the entire timeline becomes clear and everything fits together perfectly, which is more than you can say for a lot of non-linear storytelling.
The real beauty of the film, though, is in its lovely use of stylized animation. Many of the backdrops are not so much shot as drawn. Moments of surreal imagery dot the film throughout, especially artful in a dancing plume of cigarette smoke and in a scene where Azreal, the Angel of Death, visits Nasser Ali in his bedroom. The mix of live-action and animation is so unique and itself makes the film worth seeing.
Final Verdict: Audiences that are addicted to the feel-good flick may not take to this film, largely because its rich emotions deviate so fully from the sunny artifice of Hollywood. Still, though Chicken With Plums tells a tragic story of loss and resignation, its brooding humor will charm fans of Persepolis and likely win new converts to Satrapi and Paronnaud’s unique style of storytelling.
Pitch Perfect is a rollicking Glee-style comedy written by 30 Rock writer-producer Kay Cannon. Its addictive mixes and melodious cast are sure to draw high notes of laughter from audiences. Anna Kendrick (What to Expect When You’re Expecting, 50/50) plays Beca, a natural loner who dreams of becoming a professional DJ. Though it’s her freshman year, she has no interest in being in college, so she sulks around campus wearing dark eyeliner until her professor father pressures her to take part in university life. To appease him, Beca joins the Barden Bellas, an all-female competitive a cappella group that has been humiliated in the previous year’s finals. The group has lost most of its members and is desperately seeking newbies. Fortunately for the Bellas, no one can say no to a naked Brittany Snow (Hairspray).
The Bellas’ leader, a type-A control freak named Aubrey (Anna Camp), is reluctant to accept Beca because she finds the wannabe DJ a bit too “alternative” (whatever that’s supposed to mean twenty years after 1992) for the group’s prim demeanor. Still, Aubrey has little choice but to accept any girls who will audition, so she ends up with a motley collection that includes a sex addict (played by the gorgeous Alexis Knapp), a not-so-in-the-closet lesbian, a girl who speaks so quietly that no one can hear her (but who tends to mouth things like, “I ate my twin in the womb”), and Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy, “the best singer in Tazmania with teeth.”
As part of this ensemble, Beca may excel at mixing, but her character seems a bit off-key. Because Beca doesn’t have much personality other than being anti, Kendrick isn’t given enough of a chance to stand out as a comedian. Instead, the real rock star of this film is Rebel Wilson. We get to see more of her here than in Bridesmaids or Bachelorette, and it’s hardly possible to overstate her absolute brilliance as she delivers some of the best lines in the film, of which the trailer highlights only a few. Whether she’s purring a line under her breath or belting out a solo, she steals every scene she’s in.
Honorable mentions go to John Michael Higgins (Bad Teacher) and Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, People Like Us) as the anything-goes competition announcers. Their humor comes from their brutal and hilarious honesty, as when one group performs using sock puppets and finds itself introduced as “The Sockappellas, proving that it doesn’t get better for everyone after high school.” The thing that makes this film so much fun (other than its diverse, aberrant characters) is how perfectly it locates the comedy in the seriousness with which these contests are taken. As Banks’s character explains, in the world of a cappella, “A mistake can haunt you for the rest of your life — and affect your children.”
Also noteworthy is Bumper (Adam DeVine), the wonderfully slimy lead singer of the Treble Makers, a group of guys who are geeks in real life until they get on the stage, where they’re the bosses of collegiate a cappella. Even in his few scenes, DeVine (Workaholics) creates one of the film’s most memorable characters. He’s kind of like a mini Jack Black.
One can only hope and pray for a sequel featuring Wilson and DeVine as the leads. What a sophomore year that would be.
Final Verdict: Overall, Pitch Perfect is a riotous comedy with a sharp script, perfect casting and courageously-mixed music. It’s every bit as hilarious as the world of collegiate a cappella competitions should be.