Thursday, October 8, 2015

When houses stop being homes

99 Homes humanizes the devastations of the mortgage crisis.

In 99 Homes, director Ramin Bahrani -- who made his mark in the film world with 2005's Man Push Cart -- takes an exacting look at what happens when homes are in foreclosure and the vultures descend, a situation that in 2007 came to be known as the subprime mortgage crisis.

The set-up: Michael Shannon plays an unscrupulous real estate hustler who has amassed a small fortune, and Andrew Garfield portrays an unemployed construction worker who's evicted from his home, but winds up working for Shannon's Rick Carver.

Set in Florida during the darkest days of the recession, the movie early on finds Carver showing up at Nash's door with a couple of sheriff's deputies. They give Nash all of two minutes to gather his belongings and move his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax) out of the house.

Nash initially resists, but there's no forestalling the inevitable. The family winds up in a bad motel with few prospects for improving its lot. At this point, you can feel hope swirling down the drain.

For his part, Carver wastes no time on hope. He's too busy scheming: He works for banks, but knows how to scam the government for money. He'll also offer insultingly meager amounts of cash to take over a home for a quick flip. He calls the program "cash for keys." How about taking $3,500 for your home before the sheriff shows up?

Unlike Carver, Nash has a conscience, and Garfield does a fine job of mining Nash's uneasiness. He's in a position that's bringing in unexpected amounts of money, first as a handyman for Carver and then as a participant in evictions. He's required to push people around the way he once was pushed around, but he's never comfortable in the role.

Shannon makes Carver a credible character, a man whose ethos springs from a dog-eat-dog reading of reality. He saw his father get screwed by the system, and vowed that he'd never share such a fate. Carver isn't about to be the dog that's eaten.

Carver's a businessman who learned how to shut off his emotions so that he could capitalize on other people's suffering. An amoral pragmatist, he's willing to give Nash an opportunity to flip the script on a society that has left him out in the cold. There's no bailout for losers, Carver insists.

Bahrani's movie revolves around two conflicting notions of housing.

To Nash, the home from which he was evicted is the cornerstone of his family's stability. He grew up the house. His mother operated her haircutting businesses there, and his son knew no other residence.

Carver's view of homes couldn't be more different. To him a house is nothing but a box and an opportunity to make money. Boxes have no emotional meaning and neither do the deluded people who live in them.

Carver used to make money by selling people homes. Now he makes money by throwing them out of their houses. He understands the irony, but doesn't much care.

Garfield, the British actor who took a turn at Spider Man, does fine work as a guy who wants to earn a decent wage with his hands, but finds himself dabbling in a world where money has become the only measure that matters.

Bahrani isn't afraid of social relevance, which may be why the movie's at its best when it's showing us what life is like for people who find themselves looking at their belongings on the front lawn and not knowing where the hell to go next.

It's an important image to absorb, but when you review the story in your mind, you may realize that Bahrani is better at presenting telling incidents and episodes than he is at delivering a fully enriched narrative.

Still, 99 Homes puts us in touch with a devastating moment from which many have yet to recover -- and perhaps never will.

'Malala' aims to inspire

It's not the deepest of documentaries, but He Named Me Malala benefits from a young woman's dynamic personality.

If you don't know by now, you should: Malala Yousafzai has become one of the world's most inspirational figures.

Shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for the "crime" of attending school in the Swat Valley of her home country, Pakistan, Malala -- as she's now familiarly known -- went on to win the Noble Peace Prize in 2014.

She shared the honor with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian advocate for children's rights who hasn't gotten nearly as much attention.

That's not to say that Malala isn't deserving of notice and acclaim. She's bright, articulate and an energetic advocate for the education of young women around the globe.

A capable spokesperson for her cause, Malala has written a best-selling book (I Am Malala), traveled to Africa in support of education and appeared on many TV shows. (She recently appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where she did a card trick.)

Now comes He Named Me Malala, a documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth).

Considering the subject, it seems almost churlish to complain about He Named Me Malala, which tells Malala's story and advances her educational agenda.

From a film standpoint, He Named Me Malala can be summed up easily: Amazing subject about an amazing young woman with a dynamic personality. Otherwise, a medium-grade documentary that's bigger on inspiration than insight.

It's possible, though, that He Named Me Malala should become compulsory viewing for American middle and high school students, kids who often take education for granted.

Using animated interludes, Guggenheim tells Malala's story, and offers views of her life in the limelight.

He also gives us glimpses into Malala's life as a young woman at home with her family in England. Malala can't return to Pakistan without putting her life in danger.

From what we see of these British-based scenes, Malala's two brothers are terrific kids. Her father seems to play a central role in her life. Her mother isn't much heard.

Dad -- Ziauddin Yousafzai -- wonders whether he may be responsible for what happened to Malala. As a committed educator, did he force her into a role that endangered her life?

Malala answers the question with an emphatic "no." He (her father) named me Malala, but he didn't make me Malala, she says.

A promotional vehicle for worthy ideas, the film would have benefited from more substance and better organization, and it easily could have withstood a bit of fleshing out when it comes to informing us about the dimension of a global problem: the way some cultures classify women as beings unworthy of an education.

But no matter how it's packaged, Malala's story retains the inspirational quality that Guggenheim surely was attempting to give it. For many, that will be enough.

The message outpaces the movie

When a gay New Jersey detective learns that she has stage-four lung cancer, she embarks on a lonely fight to ensure that her pension benefits will be awarded to her domestic partner.

If that story sounds familiar, it's probably because Laurel Hester's struggles in Ocean County, N.J., were well-covered by the media.

In 2005, Hester battled with a board of freeholders who argued that as a lesbian, she wasn't entitled to the same rights as married heterosexual police officers.

Freehold, the resultant movie, makes convincing points about gay rights, but never finds an entirely convincing way of turning them into a compelling drama.

Julianne Moore (as Hester) and Ellen Page (as her partner, Stacie Andree) act out a script that easily could have been reduced to bullet points about equality.

In addition, some of the more interesting aspects of the screenplay (Hester's initial reluctance to be identified as gay for fear of reprisals by her fellow officers) are too quickly resolved.

In a piece of oddball casting, Steve Carell turns up as Steven Goldstein, a gay Jewish activist. Wearing a yarmulka, Carell bursts through the film's often bland surface with the force of a marching band invading a library.

Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) wrings emotion out of Hester's losing battle with cancer, and Moore certainly does her best to look as if she's on death's door.

Still, the biggest surprise in this undernourished drama centers on Michael Shannon, who plays Hester's partner, a cop who may not be fluent in the language of diversity, but whose conscience and decency lead him in the right direction.

It's not exactly a compliment to say that Shannon's Dane Wells might have made a more interesting subject than either of the movie's two principals. After all, Wells had nothing to gain in the fight other than to act out of his conviction that his partner had been a good cop who deserved his loyalty and support.

Pop culture -- a history and an oddity


Popular culture seems constantly engaged moments of self-veneration, some of worthless activities and others of worthy phenomenon. Director Douglas Tirola's documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, tilts toward the worthy end of the spectrum as it chronicles the brief history and pop cultural influences of National Lampoon magazine. For me, the best part of this look at a magazine whose satiric irreverence still reverberates throughout the movie world involves seeing some of the people who became part of Lampoon family in their younger days, notably Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Gilda Radner. But Tirola rightly spends more time with Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Bob Hoffman, the comic minds who were instrumental in launching the magazine. Businessman Matty Simmons gets his share of the limelight: He helped create the Lampoon commercial empire, if that's not too grandiose a term for for the magazine's various spinoffs. Lasting from 1970 to 1988. National Lampoon, of course, became best known for a single cover, a photo of dog with a revolver pointed at its head. The caption: "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog".


Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) strikes again with Yakuza Apocalypse, a movie that almost can't be separated from the word "midnight" -- as in "midnight movie." The term generally applies to films that refuse to be tamed either by convention or taste. This time, Miike gives us a movie featuring Yakuza vampires. Not enough? Add sword fights and a giant green creature who shows up late in the proceedings to trample the Earth; it looks like a cheesy Muppets ripoff blown-up to the size of a building. Yakuza Apocalypse is amusing for its sheer gall and for the way it throws many genres into Miike's Cuisinart without apparent concern for where the blood will splatter. Yakuza Apocalypse plays like a stream of consciousness movie in which the characters are caught in Miike's crazy flow. Yakuza Apocalypse may not be Miike's best, but it's willing to try just about anything in its pursuit of the occasionally repulsive and, more important, the outrageously nonsensical.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Can this botanist be saved?

Ridley Scott's The Martian puts a premium on smarts.

In 1979, Ridley Scott made his first journey into to space with Alien, a landmark movie that spawned sequels and turned the universe into a source of abiding terror.

Rather than harboring wondrous possibilities for communication with alien life (see Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Alien , introduced us to acid drooling monsters that hatched inside human bodies.

In 2012's Prometheus, Scott returned to space with a competent movie, but one that failed to gather Alien's cultural steam.

The same might be said about Scott's The Martian, but it's a much better movie than Prometheus, and its view of what awaits us in space may be more realistic; i.e., nothing but hardship and emptiness.

The story centers on a mission to Mars in which an early picture twist leaves botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) abandoned on the planet's desolate surface.

Believing Watney to be dead, his companions on the Ares III mission head back toward Earth. Watney must use all his scientific knowledge and ingenuity if he's going to have a chance at survival.

Despite its stark setting, the resultant film goes against the dystopian grain that distinguishes most contemporary sci-fi. The longer The Martian goes on, the more it becomes clear that Scott is making his ode to science. Brain power not brawn gives Watney a chance.

I don't know if the science in The Martian will make scientists happy. I'm hopeful that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson will weigh in on the subject as he did on Gravity, a movie he didn't like.

But Scott has gone to great lengths to make the movie feel scientifically plausible, and from a dramatic point of view that's more important than turning the screen into a 3D science lesson.

Based on popular novel by Andy Weir, the story also makes us aware of what's happening on Earth. The head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) tries to figure out how to keep his program viable while hatching a rescue plan.

Daniels is joined by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig in his efforts to determine whether Watney can be saved.

From time to time, we also check in on the crew that's headed back to Earth under the guidance of Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Also on board the spaceship that fled the Martian storm believed to have killed Watney are astronauts played by Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan and Michael Pena.

Watney, who talks to himself for a long time before he discovers how to communicate with Earth, narrates some of the story. These "chats" add self-reflective humor to the proceedings and don't really intrude on the story, which addresses three important questions: How will Watney deal with problems revolving involving diminishing supplies of food, air and water?

As a piece of filmmaking, The Martian is more clear-eyed than visionary. and it's weighed down by an unnecessary epilogue that follows tense finale with enough white-knuckle potential to satisfy action junkies.

Scott makes witty use of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive and other '70s disco music, and receives a strong assist from cinematographer Darisuz Wolski, who makes reasonable -- if not dazzling -- use of 3D.

For the most part, Scott maintains focus. He doesn't suggest that science will save us, but builds an exciting entertainment around the notion that some problems are best solved by knowledge, cooperation and courage bred of necessity.

No weapons required. I'd call that both a profession of faith and a relief.

A hard-core look at the drug war

French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Sicario is a dense, complicated and deeply pessimistic movie about the drug war and, quite possibly, the collapse of just about all civilized values.

If you're looking for a diverting night at the movies, look elsewhere. In Villeneuve's supremely caustic drama, even triumph tends to feel bad.

So there's your warning.

If, on the other hand, you're ready for a dark thriller that pulls no punches, you may want to give Sicario a try. Watching Sicario -- the word means hit man -- I half wondered whether Villeneuve (Prisoners and Incendies) felt that Steven Soderbergh's Traffic was a little too light-hearted and needed a corrective.

The story introduces us to FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), an agent who's recruited by shadowy forces to participate in an anti-drug task force that's led by a swaggering Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).

We're not sure whether Brolin's Graver is a CIA agent or a DEA agent, but whoever writes his checks seems willing to let him play by his own rules. When we first see him, he's at a meeting wearing flip flops, an obvious clue that this is no ordinary cop.

In addition to the cops who work with Brolin, we meet Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious fellow whose role in the proceedings remains vague. It's a safe bet, though, that the taciturn Alejandro isn't handling human relations.

It takes a while for the plot to clarify, a smart decision on Villeneuve's part. He keeps us at Kate's meager level of understanding; she's thrown into a chaotic situation she doesn't comprehend. Neither do we.

Slowly we learn that the mission of this drug-fighting force involves undermining the stability of the Sonora cartel so that law enforcement officials can locate the guy who heads it.

Set in Chandler, Ariz., the movie's opening raid makes it clear that the cartel isn't playing around. Blunt's Mercer joins agents who find a house full of mutilated bodies hidden behind its walls, one of the more macabre sights you'll see in a movie this year.

Villeneuve's depiction of Juarez, site of a mid-picture raid, will do nothing to boost tourism in that town, except maybe for those who want to see what a city looks like when bodies are left hanging from overpasses.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) gives Villeneuve images to match his foray into a world without clear moral boundaries.

A late-picture swerve into revenge territory may be a bit too pat, but Villeneuve gives most of this down-and-dirty drama an undertow of dread that's augmented by Del Toro's unnerving performance. Brolin's smug savvy seems right for a character who wants people to think that only he truly understands what's happening.

Blunt may be a bit too soft for this kind of role, but if you don't entirely buy her performance, you may not entirely reject it either, and it does nothing to undermine the corrosive atmosphere Villeneuve creates.

A insistent score by Johann Johannsson comes as close as you'll want to get to an aural equivalent for what it feels like to experience pure dread. That score has its softer moments, but it also includes sounds that could pass for the agonized groans of hell.

Violent and harsh, Sicario is the kind of movie that leaves tread marks on the psyche.


Seeking a wife, Indian style

If Meet the Patels can be taken as a reliable indicator, it's not easy to be a first generation Indian American, particularly when it comes to marriage. Ravi Patel, an actor by trade, has made a documentary with his sister Geeta Patel that makes the point. Their subject: Ravi's difficulty making commitments and his parents desire that he marry an Indian girl so that he can continue their cultural traditions. The movie opens when Ravi breaks up with his Anglo girlfriend. Thinking he might do better with a woman who shares his cultural background, he yields to his parents suggestion that he allow them to try to arrange a marriage. This involves a trip to India, as well as plenty of U.S. travel. Supplemented by a animated interludes, the movie takes us on an entertaining journey through the world of Indian singles. Interestingly, Meet the Patels isn't fueled by Ravi's rebellious anger; he's a good-humored young man of 29 who wants to please his parents while working out conflicted identity problems of his own. On top of that, everyone in the movie is likable, which affords audiences with an opportunity to spend time with a family you might actually like to meet in real life.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A movie that walks 'The Walk'

Director Robert Zemeckis recreates Philippe Petit's 1974 wire walk between the towers of The World Trade Center.

The finale of The Walk qualifies as a true astonishment, a stunning recreation of Philippe Petit's 1974 wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Director Robert Zemeckis employs 3D, IMAX, CGI and heaven knows what else to make us feel what it was like for Petit to step onto a wire 110 stories above the bustle of lower Manhattan.

Now, I can't say that this was a feeling that I ever wanted to have. As a person who's squeamish about heights, I can tell you that I found the last act of Zemeckis's movie as terrifying as any experience I've had at a movie.

Those scenes, however, remind us that movies are capable of immersing us in experiences that are entirely sensory -- in this case, making us feel as if we, too, are stepping onto a wire suspended between two monolithic skyscrapers.

The movie doesn't always soar in other areas, so whether you see The Walk depends on whether Petit's wire-walking escapade proves involving enough. It was for me.

Was Petit's famous wire walk a work of art, a dangerously illegal expression of massive irresponsibility or an act of daring so exceptional that it transcended all categories?

I honestly don't know, but like most moviegoers I'm familiar with the details of Petit's story because of James Marsh's 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, a movie that told the story of Petit's obsession.

Marsh recreated the various ruses Petit employed to gain entry into the World Trade Center so that he could string his wire. He used still photos to show Petit's walk.

I happened to live in New York City at the time Petit made his famous walk. Contrary to what Zemeckis's movie contends, Petit did not soften my view of The World Trade Center. I always thought the towers were cold, imposing and lacking in architectural elegance and invention.

So, the movie ...

Early on, Zemeckis operates in exaggerated fanciful mode, introducing us to Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he stands on the torch of the Statue Liberty, the perch from which he'll provide the tale with its intermittent narration. He talks directly to the camera.

I can only surmise that in the wake of Sept. 11, Zemeckis places Petit atop the Statue of Liberty to show that the ideals of freedom have survived, even though the towers have not -- not that Zemeckis makes any other references to the ultimate fate of the towers. He knows we know, and leaves it at that.

Speaking with a variable French accent, Gordon-Levitt displays an unbridled exuberance that mirrors the movie's buoyant tone. Aside from an occasional angry outburst and one moment of sweaty panic, he's pretty much stuck in over-drive.

During the early '70s, we see Petit working as a street performer in Paris. He juggles atop a unicycle, walks a wire strung between trees and offers constant explanations for why he's speaking English. He's preparing to visit America, he tells anyone who asks.

Petit decided his destiny involved making this particular walk the minute he saw a picture of the then-proposed towers in a magazine in a dentist's office.

The performances surrounding Levitt, notably that of Charlotte Le Bon as his girlfriend Annie Alix, truly can be deemed "supporting;" other characters exist as props either to bolster Petit emotionally or to help him plan and execute his walk.

Zemeckis treats the latter part of The Walk as a caper film. To augment the illicit feeing that accompanied Petit's efforts, he refers to his helpers as "accomplices."

The mid-sections of the film introduce us to Papa Rudy, a circus wire walker played by Ben Kingsley. Papa Rudy tries to instill Petit with the ethos of a wire walker, as Kingsley struggles to transcend the stereotype of a gruff but caring mentor.

Because Marsh's documentary didn't try to make us feel as if we were on the wire with Petit, it did a better job of taking us inside Petit's mind, exposing us to what he regarded as a mixture of art and performance -- or, to put it another way, a magical piece of performance art.

The Walk isn't a great movie, although it boasts a truly great recreation of an event with which younger audiences may not be familiar.

Those who know Zemeckis's work (from Back to the Future to Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Forrest Gump to Cast Away and The Polar Express) know that he makes little effort to hide his delight in artifice.

That tendency doesn't always serve him well in The Walk, which is at its best when Petit is alone on the wire, creating his "poetry." For all the technical wizardry required to create those moments, they don't feel nearly as self-conscious as much of what we've been watching.

Aside from the excruciating tightening of the gut I experienced during Petit's prolonged wire walk, what I'll most remember about The Walk is an image of Petit reclining on the wire as we hear him talk about the profound silence and serenity that are encompassing him, an unearthly stillness.

I can't begin to imagine what might have been going on Petit's head normally if this is how far he had to go to find such tranquility and grace.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Some traumas never seem to end

Director Zhang Yimou again reunites with actress Gong Li for a look at the impact of China's Cultural Revolution.

For more than a decade, filmgoers wondered whether Chinese director Zhang Yimou would ever again work with Gong Li, the actress who starred in some of his best movies: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern to name three landmark films from the late '80s and early '90s.

Zhang and Li did reunite for 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower, a spectacle-heavy costume drama of the kind that Zhang seemed to be gravitating toward.

Nine years later, Zhang and Gong have teamed again, this time in an intimately scaled drama about the devastating ramifications of China's Cultural Revolution.

Oddly, Coming Home, which should have knowledgeable audiences quaking with anticipation, hasn't set off a roar of anticipation on the art house circuit.

I'm not sure why. Although Coming Home doesn't match the emotional heft or exquisite beauty of the best of Zhang and Gong's collaborations, it certainly carves out a worthy place of its own.

Gong plays Feng Wanyu, a woman whose husband (Chen Daoming) is imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. When Daoming's Lu escapes, the couple's ambitious, teen-age daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) shrugs off any association with her supposedly subversive father.

With Zhang compressing time, Lu is recaptured; the Cultural Revolution ends; and Lu is free to return home.

By this time, Dan Dan has shed the infection of rabid Maoist ideology, but Feng no longer recognizes her husband. She even mistakes him for a sadistic interrogator from Maoist days.

We're never sure whether Feng suffers from dementia or from some narrowly focused form of amnesia, an uncertainty that encourages us to view the movie as a meditation on the psychological toll of Mao's vicious cultural purge.

A persistent Lu tries to re-establish his life as a husband, an activity that eventually centers on scenes in which he reads Feng letters he wrote from prison. She still doesn't recognize him, but they become linked in this exercise at restoring lost memories.

Although there are images of sad beauty in Coming Home, the film takes on some of the modesty of its meager settings, notably Feng's small apartment or the street-level room Lu rents to be near her.

In its quiet way, Coming Home raises important questions about how to re-define normalcy in the wake of the kind of upheaval from which some never recover.

One can only hope that Gong, 49, and Zhang, now 63, will find material that allows them to collaborate again. They may never recapture the magic of the movies that helped announce the international rebirth of Chinese cinema almost 30 years ago, but they clearly know how to tap into each other's best artistic instincts.