Thursday, October 29, 2015

There's no leaving this 'Room' behind

The harrowing story of a mother and son under extreme duress.

Sometimes to appreciate what a movie is, it helps to consider what it isn't.

Room, the story of a young woman who's held prisoner in a backyard shed along with her five-year-old son, could have been the sensationalized story of a deranged psychopath who kidnapped a woman when she was 17, sexually assaulted her, got her pregnant and continued to terrorize her.

But Room smartly takes us into a world where the abnormal has begun to normalize. Born in the shed, the woman's son knows no other life than the one he's experienced in this ratty space. He's seen nothing of the outside world except for the vacant sky that's visible through a skylight in the roof. Otherwise, there are no windows, and the door has been rigged so that only the psychopathic jailer has the combination that can open it.

Captured when she was 17, the boy's mother sometimes negotiates with her captor, who shows up whenever he wants to sleep with her. He's the boy's father, but he barely acknowledges the child's existence, and he obviously has no concern for the boy's welfare.

In their horrible situation, mother and son develop an unbreakable but sometimes difficult bond. Mom -- known as Ma and played with great dexterity and determination by Brie Larson -- tries to create a stable environment within an obviously perverse situation. She does her best to cope. She teaches the boy as best she can.

For his part, Jack (an amazing Jacob Tremblay) is as normal as any child could be under such circumstances. He's never had a haircut. He's made to hide in a small wardrobe when the man -- called Old Nick by Ma -- makes his nocturnal visits. He's always alone with Ma.

Jack hears Old Nick and his mother talking, but can't really understand what's being said, a condition made frightening and confusing by director Lenny Abrahamsson, who makes Jack's point of view frighteningly real, a child in a world he can't comprehend.

You're not wrong to think all of this sounds like the basis for a horror movie. But the brilliance of Abrahamson's adaptation of a novel by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, is that Ma has made adjustments, even though she can't ignore the terrible frustrations of living in a confined space (10 feet by 10 feet) that never was meant for human habitation.

You get the impression, Ma never would have been able to survive without Jack, who has given purpose to her life. She's intent on doing her best to protect him, and also to begin telling him about the world beyond the shed. Her motherhood can be both tender and fierce.

I won't describe the plot machinations any further because, if you haven't read Donoghue's novel, it's best not to know much more.

There are other characters in the movie. Eventually, we meet Ma's mother (Joan Allen), the husband she's acquired since Ma's kidnapping (Tom McCamus) and Ma's father (Bill Macy).

Wisely, Irish-born Abrahamson, who directed the oddball movie Frank, offers only glimpses of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). He focuses on Ma and Jack in ways that begin to illuminate both the love and claustrophobia of a mother/son bond, as well as the nature of a reality Jack is only beginning to comprehend. What he knows of the world beyond the shed comes from Ma and from the small TV left by their captor.

Old Nick, at one point, buys the boy a toy, and he's obviously left a few books and other things for Jack, but the movie never suggests that Old Nick has any capacity for empathy nor does it exploit his monstrousness for genre thrills: It stays within its mother-and-son frame.

Ultimately, Room is a story about what happens when love is put to the severest of tests.

Abrahamson credits us with enough intelligence to know that Ma has had no preparation for motherhood. Commendably, he doesn't turn Jack into a poster boy for adorableness; the kid can get on your nerves.

Unexpected and troubling, Room looks at what it takes not only to survive under horrific circumstances, but to love, as well.

Room followed me out of the theater: I couldn't entirely shake the uneasiness of the movie's first half, and I don't believe the characters ever will either. Room unbalances our world and makes it feel strange.

Yes, there's love and restoration -- but there's also lingering disquiet, the feeling that things can go so wrong that they never can be made right again. That's what haunts you about this absorbing, plain-spoken and carefully calibrated movie.

Lame drama, but food looks great

Burnt features Bradley Cooper as a narcissistic chef.

Someone needs to explain to me why I should want to spend time with an obnoxiously narcissistic chef who's trying to make a comeback in London after having undermined a skyrocketing career in Paris.

But wait, maybe the answer has something to do with the fact that said chef is the main character in a movie called Burnt, and he's played by a fashionably bestubbled Bradley Cooper.

Burnt, the plot of which I've just described, can't rise above its many problems even with Cooper portraying a culinary hotshot who thinks he's better than everyone else -- and probably would be if it weren't for the drug and alcohol problems that derailed his rise.

Turns out the best thing about this John Wells directed movie, set in the upper echelons of London's foodie culture, is the food, photographed with glossy slickness by cinematographer Adrinao Goldman.

When the camera focuses on the meals that Cooper's Adam Jones prepares, the movie has the allure of a beautifully photographed gourmet magazine, and it affords us a glimpse into the kitchens of the kind of gastronomically praised establishments that serve up minuscule portions for astronomical prices.

Is there an unwritten rule that all highly praised food must never touch the edge of any plate?

Wells supplies the kitchen scenes with the heat and bustle you'd expect, and I'd have been content if food preparation -- complete with tension, yelling and the occasional dress-down -- had completely wiped out the plot.

The screenplay by Steven Knight (Locke, Redemption) doesn't have much to offer once it convinces us that Jones' character is a jerk.

Because he's a talented jerk, others -- Sienna Miller as a saucier with a big future and Daniel Bruhl as a gay Maitre-D -- tolerate Jones and try to help him, even when they're frustrated by him.

Additional support comes from Omar Sy (The Untouchables), as a sous chef whose business in Paris was ruined by the then drunken Jones, and Matthew Rhys , as a rival restaurateur who also dislikes Jones intensely.

Subplots involving Jones' indebtedness to drug dealers and the late-picture introduction of one of his former lovers (Alicia Vikander) add little to an undernourished script.

Functioning as a kind of garnish, Emma Thompson appears as a doctor hired by Jones' employer to monitor his blood-alcohol level, and, occasionally, to offer sage advice.

Celebrity chefs Marcus Wareing and Mario Batali are credited with having served as consultants on the movie, so the kitchen environment presumably has some authenticity.

Truth be told, I'd rather watch the two of them work than be force fed another helping of Burnt.

If you're hungry for a more appetizing food movie, and haven't seen Chef, well ... there's always Netflix.

'Truth' looks at big-time TV news

Kate Blanchett and Robert Redford star in a drama about the story that took down anchorman Dan Rather.

Truth, the story of how a team of crack 60 Minutes' reporters got misled while doing a 2004 story about George W. Bush's military record, tries to mount what might be the most high-minded defense of journalistic misjudgment ever.

The real-life story resulted in resignations and firings, including the abdication of Dan Rather from the anchor throne of the CBS Evening News. Rather also had to issue an on-air apology.

In Truth, absorption with the details of researching the story ultimately gives way to a lamentation over a once honorable news business that has been swallowed by self-serving corporate concerns.

Look, I'm as happy as the next former ink stained wretch to cry in my beer over the sorry state of contemporary journalism, but Truth may not have found the right story to make the case.

For those who've forgotten, the CBS story revolved around two central contentions.

One: During the Vietnam War years, influence was used to get the privileged Bush into the Texas Air National Guard, presumably as a way to avoid combat. Two: Bush didn't fulfill a substantial portion of his Guard commitment.

That's a good story to be sure, particularly in a year when Bush was running for his second term, but significant doubt was cast on the authenticity of two documents Mapes and company relied on to prove make their argument.

Truth, which stars Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as Dan Rather, suggests that a few missteps along the way didn't necessarily undermine the story's essential veracity. That may be true, but it's not a position I'd want to argue in the court of journalistic ethics.

Redford, who starred in All the President's Men, a 1976 story about the journalistic triumphs of Watergate, again takes up the cudgels for a probing press. But even in a story of involving mistakes, Rather is made to embody a heightened form of journalistic virtue.

A pair of suspenders can't turn Redford into Rather. Still, he gives a decent enough performance as a guy who's been around the journalistic block.

Rather may be the big name in the story, but Truth focuses most of its attention on Mary Mapes, the gifted producer who led the team of reporters who researched the story before the heavy interviewing artillery -- i.e., Rather -- arrived.

Blanchett's certainly good at showing how the satisfactions of a job well done are undermined once Mapes learns that the story she thought was meticulously researched began to fall apart.

Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss hold their own as members of the reporting team. Bruce Greenwood, David Lyons and Rachel Blake add flavor as CBS news division execs.

Obviously, the reporting team worked hard on the story, and Rather had ample reason to have confidence in Mapes, who won acclaim and, later, a Peabody, for her work on the infamous Abu Ghraib story. (The movie, in an obvious irony, points out that Mapes won her Peabody after she'd been fired by CBS.)

So what we ultimately get feels a bit addled, a movie that mourns the demise of hard-nosed journalism, but focuses on a case in which the reporters very well may have been suckered.

Vanderbilt concludes with outraged flourishes over they way a major corporation treated reporters with a fighting spirit and a willingness to keep asking tough questions.

Sure CBS was concerned about revenue, its image and possible government retaliation. Maybe the network put its interests above a pursuit of the truth, but that doesn't mean the story that set off this firestorm wasn't flawed.

It's hardly surprising that things ultimately got ugly at CBS. When a network has to fall on its sword, you can bet that blood will be shed, and -- in the case of the Bush story -- some of it belonged to journalists who sincerely thought they had uncovered something big.

Perhaps they did, but the country since has moved on from a story whose greatest impact was felt by those who reported it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Never mind the war, let's sing

Despite a few chuckles, Rock the Kasbah pretty much seems pointless.

The new Bill Murray comedy, Rock the Kasbah, makes room for a worthwhile story of courage: A brave Pashtun woman risks her life to defy cultural norms so that she can sing on Afghanistan's version of American Idol.

In the case of the movie's Salima, the risk goes beyond being laughed off the stage. Salima's life is threatened by the men in her village, most of whom see her behavior as a cause for shame.

Salima's a fictional character, but the story has roots in reality. In 2008, singer Setara Hussainzada appeared on Afghan Star, the Afghan version of American Idol. Another woman, Lima Sahar, also competed on the show.

Hussainzada has been the subject of two HBO documentaries, 2010's Afghan Star and a 2011 follow-up, Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star.

Unfortunately, director Barry Levinson, working from a screenplay by Mitch Glazer, trivializes the story of his fictional singer by focusing on Richie Lanz (Murray) a bottom-feeding American who organizes tours for rock groups.

Remember? I told you this was a Bill Murray comedy.

When the movie opens Richie -- who lives in a dumpy apartment in Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles -- is so down on his luck, he accepts a job taking a no-name singer (Zooey Deschanel) on a USO tour to Afghanistan.

Once in Kabul, Deschanel's character quickly realizes that she's in danger, and arranges to leave the country. She takes Richie's money, and his passport, stranding him in a two-star hotel in Kabul.

To make matters worse, a tattooed mercenary (Bruce Willis) claims Richie owes him $1,000 for helping to get Deschanel's character out of the country. He gives Richie 24 hours to pay up.

A couple of shady gun runners (Scott Caan and Danny McBride) offer Richie a way out. They'll pay him to deliver ammunition to a group of local villagers who are trying to defend their homes.

After an encounter with an IED, Richie and Willis' character reach the village, and Richie discovers Salima.

In the middle of all this and for no apparent reason, Kate Hudson appears as a hooker with (yes) a heart of gold, a woman who's trying to use the war to gather a nest egg that will launch her in the real estate business once she returns to the states.

Doing his best to convey Richie's perpetual cynicism and all-around crumminess, Murray ambles though Kabul (the film was shot in Morocco), a war-torn city where there are no rules, and where foreigners gather at a club where they drink and indulge in other pleasures.

Despite its ravaged location, the movie can't escape the bright glare of Hollywood cliche. A seedy, no-account guy must find a way to redeem himself. Richie discovers his route to salvation by standing up for Salima.

It's roughly the same pattern Murray established in last year's St. Vincent: the apparently irredeemable guy who's not as bad as he initially seems.

Although there are some chuckles (credit Murray), this dragged-out, shambles of a comedy doesn't amount to much of anything.

Maybe that wouldn't have mattered had Rock the Kasbah been funny enough to make us overlook its shortcomings or serious enough to excuse a very sporadic supply of laughs.

An experiment creates controversy

Experimenter takes a creative look at the work of a psychologist.

At least two experimenters are involved in Experimenter, a movie whose principal events unfold during the 1960s.

Experimenter 1: Psychologist Stanley Milgram, the movie's real-life subject.

In the early 1960s, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted a series of controversial experiments at Yale. Dubbed the "obedience experiments," Milgram's work was inspired by his interest in Nazi behavior during World War II.

Milgram designed an experiment that was supposed to determine whether ordinary people could -- through suggestion and rules -- behave sadistically. Would otherwise decent people administer punishment to others -- in the form of electric shocks -- simply because they were told it was part of an apparently legitimate experiment?

Experimenter 2: Director Michael Almereyda

Known to American art-house audiences for directing Ethan Hawke in a modern-day adaptation of Hamlet (2000), Almereyda creates a purposefully abstract environment in which to study Milgram, his experiments and their ethical consequences.

Unafraid to take risks, Almereyda, uses black and white photos as backdrops, obviously artificial sets and other tricky conceits to tip us off to the fact that he's interested in both Milgram and in the human capacity to accept illusion, even when little attempt is made to conceal it.

At a couple of points -- perhaps to make clear that he's blurring the line between the real and imaginary -- Almereyda shows Milgram being followed by an elephant as we walks down a corridor, discussing his experiments.

We speculate about that obvious elephant in the room? Could it be an unacknowledged question: Is Milgram himself acting sadistically?

Milgram, a young Jewish researcher whose parents emigrated from Hungary in advance of the Nazi onslaught, governs himself with dispassion. He observes people under duress, and he's played by Sarsgaard with quiet commitment and a belief in his objective rigor.

Almereyda opens the movie by introducing us to Milgram's signature experiment, one in which no electric shocks actually were given, something the subjects administering the shocks didn't know.

The movie goes on to raise questions that it's never going definitively to answer; i.e., "Is Milgram violating academic ethics by putting subjects under too much stress? And does this artificially created situation really have any equivalency with what happened in Nazi death camps?

Almereyda gives Milgram ample opportunity -- in whispered comments from his diary or in remarks delivered directly to the camera -- to make his conclusions clear: Hideous behavior is situationally determined. Given the right circumstances, most people will submit to an authority that encourages them to behave badly or even sadistically.

Almereyda includes biographical details: We meet Milgram's wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) and follow the course of an academic career that saw Milgram move from Yale to Harvard, where he was denied tenure. He then was hired by City College of New York, where he was awarded a full professorship.

Intellectually challenging and tricky, Experimenter operates on low dramatic voltage. It's a subdued provocation that's designed to throw us off balance by raising fundamental questions about choice: Those made by Milgram, those made by his subjects, and, presumably, those made by us, as well.

A lawyer discovers Holocaust horrors

Labyrinth of Lies shows us a post-war Germany that's steeped in denial.

There may be few more explosive topics than how post-war Germany came to grips (or didn't) with the country's Nazi past, particularly as it involved the Holocaust.

The German movie Labyrinth of Lies qualifies as a mostly prosaic attempt to show how the country began to overcome a serious case of Holocaust denial.

In the decade following the war, many Germans adopted a rationalization based on what they deemed a "practical" necessity: Talking about past horrors would only demoralize a new generation that was trying to help its country rise from the rubble.

Besides, Germany's web of former Nazis was far more extensive than many suspected, and many of those in West Germany's leadership circles had no desire to discuss past party affiliations -- theirs or anyone else's.

Labyrinth of Lies centers on events leading to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which began in 1963 and which focused on SS personnel who had served in Auschwitz.

A year after Adolf Eichmann was executed in Israel, Germany began its own series of trials, proceedings that contributed to the growing record of Nazi atrocities.

Labyrinth of Lies tells the story of a dedicated, young prosecutor (Alexander Fehling), a fictional character who fights to overcome official resistance to exposing former Nazis and bringing them to justice.

A journalist (Andre Szymanski) becomes an ally in the prosecutor's fight. As it turns out, Szymanski's character knows an Auschwitz survivor, an artist who serves as the voice of the movie's victims, who mostly are ignored in favor of examining German complicity and guilt.

Radmann works for Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), an attorney general who supports the young man's efforts. Most of Radmann's colleagues oppose any inquiries into the immediate German past.

To add to the drama, Radmann is an unseasoned prosecutor who has spent nearly all his time on inconsequential traffic cases. Naturally, there's resentment when Bauer puts the young man in charge of an investigation with the potential to jar the country's already fragile psyche.

Radmann also falls in love with a seamstress (Friederike Becht) who aspires to be a fashion designer. Becht's Marlene begins to benefit economically when Radmann is courted by some of Frankfurt's bigwigs, many of whom are former Nazis. They hope to lure the young man from his task.

During the course of his investigations, Radmann even discovers that his own father was a member of the party.

Aside from a detour with a major law firm, Radmann persists in his newfound cause, eventually developing an obsessive commitment to capturing and trying Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor whose sadistic "experiments" on human beings have been well-chronicled elsewhere.

Considering the volatility of his subject, director Giulio Ricciarelli's style feels regrettably wooden and familiar. Ricciarelli misses an opportunity urgently to dramatize an important subject: societal responsibility in the face of terrible injustice and legally sanctioned murder.

There's informational value in Labyrinth of Lies to be sure, but the movie's hampered by a bit of formula thinking at its core: Lone man fights forces of suppression.

Besides, if the drama were going to focus on a solitary figure, it probably should have been State Attorney General Bauer, a determined but worldly character who seems far more interesting than his callow young charge.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hanks, Spielberg reunite for thriller

Well-made Bridge of Spies takes us back to the '50s for a story of espionage and intrigue.

The opening sequences of Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies deal with the arrest of a Russian spy, an incident that allows Spielberg masterfully to establish time (the 1950s) and place (Brooklyn, N.Y.), as well as to infuse a situation we don't yet understand with gloomy tension.

Suspenseful, atmospheric and brilliantly underplayed, the film's early going reminds us just how good a director Spielberg can be.

Based on a true story, Bridge of Spies allows Spielberg to reunite with Tom Hanks for the fourth time.* The movie also provides Spielberg with a canvas on which he can sketch a complicated story about a period when U.S./Soviet tensions were at their peak.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer who's drawn into international intrigue when he's asked to defend Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), the Soviet spy who's caught by the FBI in the movie's opening.

The legal fraternity feels homage must be paid to the notion of a fair trail, but just about everyone believes that Abel should be convicted without much fuss.

In full decency mode, the instantly likable Hanks paints a portrait of a man trying his best under difficult circumstances. Abel is convicted, but Donavan saves him from the death penalty with a pragmatic argument: Someday the U.S. may need a spy to trade for an American prisoner who has been accused by the Soviets of espionage.

Defending Abel proves costly for Donovan who becomes a bit of a pariah. A brick thrown is thrown through the window of his family's home, and many think he's betraying his country.

But Donovan isn't willing to temporize for the sake of appearances. He's a decent man.

Not only is Donovan a good guy, but -- as it turns out -- he's also prophetic.

Working from a screenplay by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, Spielberg also introduces the story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the U-2 spy pilot whose plane was shot down over Russia in 1960. Donovan is asked to travel to Berlin to broker the trade he foresaw.

These chilly Berlin scenes heighten the spy drama as Donovan travels back and forth between West and East Berlin. To further complicate matters, an American student (Will Rogers) also is captured by the East Germans.

Donovan wants both Rogers' character and Powers to be swapped for Abel. The Russians are more interested in a one-for-one deal. So is the CIA, which regards the student as a negligible part of any negotiation.

No James Bond, Donovan struggles through his time in Berlin with a terrible cold that's made worse when several East German thugs mug him and steal his overcoat.

Hanks again gives the movie a reliable center, and a subtly entertaining Rylance makes his mark as a wry but resigned fellow who answers every question about why he's not more panicky with another question: "Would it help?"

Spielberg overworks the line, and can't resist a few Spielbergian touches that go against the movie's dark grain. I won't describe them here, but if you know Spielberg, you'll have no trouble picking them out.

In sum, Bridge of Spies stands as a mature and involving entertainment that recalls a time when our only concern seemed to be with the Soviet Union, and a sense of Cold War menace cast a chill over everything it touched.

*Hanks/Spielberg collaborations include The Terminal (2004); Catch Me If You Can (2002); and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Backstage with Steve Jobs

Jobs launches three new products and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin tries to explore human themes in a high-tech world. .

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote The Social Network and whose new movie Steve Jobs now goes into wide release, capitalizes on our bottomless interest in the founder of Apple. At the same, time -- and perhaps in contradictory fashion -- Sorkin asks us to accept that he's not trying to give us a factual portrayal of Jobs' life.

Of course, artists are entitled to take license with the facts as they search for larger truths, but -- let's be honest -- had Sorkin focused his movie on a tremendously successful but often callous executive named Barney McBride -- his project might never have been greenlit.

I say all this by way of telling you that I can't totally buy into Sorkin's approach (expressed in a Charlie Rose interview) that he's not replicating real people, but creating characters -- within limits, of course. Sorkin's screenplay draws on Walter Isaacson's much-lauded 2011 biography, Steve Jobs.

Whether Steve Jobs reflects the reality of the real person in full or only in part can be assessed business historians, but Sorkin's screenplay -- brought to the movies by director Danny Boyle -- charts a lively, if not entirely satisfying, course during three clearly demarcated acts.

Those three acts are constructed around backstage events preceding the launch of three products: the Macintosh computer in 1984; the NeXT cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998.

Sorkin script spends a lot of time on the fraught relationship between Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and his daughter Lisa.

It's not that Jobs' relationship with Lisa (he initially denied paternity) is irrelevant to understanding the man (or the character in the movie), it's more that Sorkin may be off base in thinking that this father/daughter tug-of-war is the most telling thing about Jobs. It's a telling thing.

We also get a little too much of Jobs' irritation at being asked for money by Lisa's mother (Katherine Waterston).

Sorkin's great strength is dialogue, so Steve Jobs includes lots of conversations that take place with the rapid fire insistence of a mouse click as we meet the characters who most interest Sorkin:

These include John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the Pepsi executive who took over Apple and who fired Jobs in a dispute over the company's direction. (Twelve years after leaving Apple in 1985, Jobs made a triumphant return to the foundering company. He's credited with turning Apple into one of the most profitable businesses in the world.)

There's also Joanna Hoffman, Apple's marketing genius, who's portrayed by Kate Winslet. Hoffman seems to be the one character who's able to speak truth to Jobs' power.

If the corporate aspects of the movie have a moral center, it belongs to Steve Wozniak, played with patience and determination by Seth Rogen, a nice piece of casting. Woz, as he's called, constantly asks Jobs to do the right thing by acknowledging the team that created the Apple II, the computer that kept the company profitable for a long time.

Fassbender approaches Jobs as a control freak who must juggle 50 different balls at one time, all in the high-stakes atmosphere of a product launch. To this end, Fassbender ably conveys Jobs' focus, intensity and intelligence.

The movie's product-launch backdrop may be the most telling thing about it. Sorkin and Boyle (Slum Dog Millionaire) make it clear that Jobs understood theatrics.

He launched new products in large auditoriums. In front of eager audiences, he shared the spotlight with new Apple products. He gave his user-friendly devices a near celebrity aura, creating a sense of specialness that somehow was supposed to transfer to the consumers of Apple products. (And, yes, I'm one of them.)

I suppose that's part of the point: Jobs could humanize high-tech products, but not himself.

By the movie's final act, Jobs has donned the jeans and black turtle necks that became something of a trademark. He has refashioned himself as a kind of god who brings products down from the digital mountaintop and reveals them to the masses.

Steve Jobs is worth seeing because Sorkin is a clever writer, because the performances are sharp enough to match the brisk pace that Boyle sets, and because much of the byplay is entertaining.

I love the fact that Sorkin takes a shot at Jobs' vaunted design sense when, in the final going, Lisa -- now a Harvard student played by Peria Haney-Jardine -- compares the first iMac to a child's Easy-Bake oven.

Apple users may get more excitement out of a real Apple product launch than they do from a movie that follows on the heels of a documentary about Jobs (The Man in the Machine) and a 2013 bio-pic that cast Ashton Kutcher as Jobs.

Ultimately (and perhaps unfortunately) Sorkin underscores the movie's message: In a climactic scene, he has Woz tell Jobs that it's possible to be both a genius and a compassionate person at the same time. "It's not binary,''says Woz.

Those words needn't have been spoken. They're like an exclamation point on a conclusion that Sorkin should have let us draw for ourselves, and they made me wonder whether the movie shouldn't have been given a subtitle: Steve Jobs, The Nagging of a Genius.

A house in need of repairs

Director Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak borders on the ludicrous.

I was hoping that Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak would rival the alluring weirdness of the director's 2006 Pan's Labyrinth, but this lavish Gothic romance/ghost story wastes a ton of production design and a capable cast on a story that (at its most dramatic points) had members of a preview audience chuckling.

As best as I can tell, chuckles aren't what del Toro had in mind for a movie that's striving to be eerie and chilling.

To make matters worse, Crimson Peak brims with the kinds of behavior found only in second-rate horror movies.

Consider: A young bride (Mia Wasikowska) arrives with her dashing husband (Tom Hiddleston) at his family estate in England. A staggeringly gloomy home looks as if it was lifted from an over-priced theme park.

Leaves and later snow drift through a large hole in the roof, but Wasikowska's Edith doesn't bother to ask whether Hiddleston's Sir Thomas Sharp has any repair plans in mind.

Did I mention that Edith, who aspires to be a novelist, is warned never to go below the house's first floor? Well, of course, she is.

To add color and perhaps symbolism, the Sharp home is built atop blood-red clay that seeps through some of the walls of Sharp's Allerdale estate.

Edith's arrival at the Sharp manse isn't exactly joyous. Jessica Chastain plays Lucille, Sharpe's sourpuss sister, a woman with an unnaturally possessive attitude toward her sibling. Lucille doesn't take kindly to her brother's new wife.

All of this takes place after Edith loses her father, who's ruthlessly murdered in the bathroom of his Buffalo, N.Y, club. The movie opens in the U.S. before moving to Sharp's isolated British wreck of a mansion.

Del Toro's depiction of Buffalo society in 1901 seems to have some potential. At minimum, it demonstrates what a movie looks like when some considerable part of the costumer's budget appears to have been spent on women's hats.

Edith's father (Jim Beaver) immediately mistrusts the aristocratic Sharp, who's trying to persuade him to invest in a machine that mines clay. A self-made industrialist, Beaver's Carter Cushing prides himself on being a good judge of character.

These early scenes -- sort of an extended prologue -- also introduce us to a doctor (Charlie Hunnam), an earnest fellow who cares about Edith, and who quite predictably will figure into the movie's over-the-top finale.

Del Toro lays on the funhouse effects (skeletal-looking creatures emerge from floors or soak in bathtubs), but the story evolves in ways that seldom surprise.

Perhaps del Toro was betting that audiences would delight in seeing these musty horror tropes exhumed and presented with unashamed blatancy, but -- in the clinches -- the resultant movie proves as silly as it is somber.

If Crimson Peak had been intended as a comedy, it might have worked, but del Toro seems to take the movie's swooning melodrama seriously.

Beyond all that, Crimson Peak's ghosts seem less like expressions of supernatural unrest than effects that seep into a movie like wandering strangers with no place else to go.

The horrific life of a kiddie killer

Beasts of No Nation makes for harrowing viewing.

Watching director Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, I was reminded of the axiom that cautions us to be careful about what we wish for. Sure, many of us want (or say we want) movies that don't short-change real-life horrors.

But when such movies arrive, they aren't always pleasant to watch.

Starring Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah and based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation takes place during a civil war in a fictional West African nation. The story centers on the transformation of young Attah's character from a cheerfully mischievous boy into a brutal child warrior.

Attar's Agu is enjoying a happy childhood with his family when an invading government army throws his village into chaos. In the resultant panic, Agu's mother and baby sister are sent to the capital. Agu's father and older brother are brutally murdered.

Left alone, Agu flees marauding soldiers as he tries to make his way through the bush.

Tired and hungry, Agu eventually is captured by rebel forces led by a character known only as Commandant (a scary and convincing Elba). Wide-eyed and frightened, Agu learns the ways of the rebel forces and becomes a kiddie killer.

Boys, Commandant insists, aren't useless. Why? They can pull triggers.

Agu joins with boys who've gone through similar experiences and who now are subject to brutalization and molestation within the "family'' of warriors that Commandant has created.

Agu's experiences are nothing short of horrific, and the scene in which he makes his first kill hardly could be more harrowing. Ordered by Commandant to commit murder, Agu buries the blade of a machete in a cowering man's skull. He now belongs to the gang.

Commandant certainly is capable of monstrous behavior, but he's given a human dimension by Elba. It seems entirely plausible that a character as charismatic as Commandant could hold sway over his charges through a mixture of inspiration, fear and intimidation.

To the film's credit, we also learn that Commandant may be subject to betrayals by the political puppet masters who use his brutality but who may inevitably disown it -- and him.

The film benefits from an intermittent narration provided by Agu, who is well portrayed by Attah -- a 14-year-old non-professional from Ghana. Attah embodies Agu's increasing numbness to the violence that surrounds him and which he perpetuates.

Yet, Attah never loses touch with Agu's vulnerability. You can't look at him without realizing he's still a boy, and that makes Agu's violence all the more heartbreaking.

Fukunaga (Sin Nombre and episodes of the first season of HBO's True Detective) doesn't have to raise the emotional wattage for us to realize that we're watching a story of tragic proportions.

But as I said at the outset: We need movies such as this, but that doesn't mean they go down easily. They are (and should be) disturbing as hell.

A girl, four guys and a robbery

Shot in a single take, Victoria is a risky endeavor.

A young woman meets four guys in a nightclub. She hangs out with them for a bit, and then winds up helping them commit a bank robbery. That's the outline of the German movie Victoria, but it doesn't begin to tell the whole story.

It's impossible to appreciate director Sebastian Schipper's Victoria without putting the movie into a film context.

To begin with, Schipper shot his 138-minute movie in a single take. That means there are no cuts as the movie transitions from one situation to the next. The lack of these customary cuts between shots may seem like a small thing, but -- in truth -- it has a major influence on the movie's impact.

A single-cut movie requires us to stay with it, even in moments when it lags. The nearly imperceptible -- but still felt presence -- of edited spaces between shots gives the mind tiny periods of rest and adjustment that a single-shot movie eliminates.

Conventionally edited movies also do some of the work for us, directing our attention, creating emphasis and even manufacturing a performance.

As a result, viewing a single-shot movie -- made possible by the widespread use of digital photography rather than film -- can be taxing for viewers, not to mention for the actors and crew.

There are no breaks. Everything must be carefully planned. There can be no do-overs without starting from the beginning.

For those who stick it out, the resultant film can feel inescapable. That fits the subject, an early-morning foray into an increasingly chaotic situation.

Schipper focuses on Victoria (Laia Costa), a Spanish woman living in Berlin. Victoria works in a coffee shop, and scratches out a meager living, but she's about to be caught up in a night she'll never forget.

At a club, where she downs shots of whiskey and dances with abandon, Victoria meets four men who are attracted to her. Are these guys out for a night of fun or are they dangerous?

Victoria tags along with her four new friends in a movie that, by necessity of its single take, occurs in real time.

Why Victoria decides to join these four guys remains a bit of a mystery, a subject for speculation rather than definitive conclusions. This rightly can be regarded as a weakness in a film that takes its time reaching the twist that energizes its plot.

One of the four men owes a favor to a gangster. The gangster wants this quartet of night owls to rob a bank. When one of the four gets too drunk to participate, Victoria is drawn into the scheme as driver of the getaway car.

Despite the bank robbery, it helps to think of Victoria as an anti-caper movie, a look at how certain kinds of characters find themselves snared in unplanned events that take on a life of their own.

Characters in such situations surrender much of their autonomy. They are no longer actors, but reactors.

Schipper's actors rise to the challenge he sets for them.

Costa creates a character who's by turns, giggly, serious and adventurous.

Of the four men, two actors stand out. Frederick Lau portrays Sonne. As the man who's most attracted to Victoria, Sonne tries to assume the role of protector. Franz Rogowski portrays Boxer, the young thug whose debt to a gangster sets the plot in motion.

Film buffs no doubt will recognize similarities in tone to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), which had a ragtag feeling of rebelliousness about it, as well as an air of improvisation.

That's a fair comparison.

But as it progresses, Schipper's film acquires its own heightened dizziness, a purposeful lack of balance that's hinted at in the early going when Victoria steals beer from a convenience store, and participates in a roof-top conversation with her four new companions.

Victoria doesn't speak German, so her dialogue is delivered in English. The Germans speak English, but shift in and out of German. And, yes, this, too, adds to the feeling of disorientation.

I suppose that's the point: Victoria is a movie of and about disorientation, which is why it is not entirely governed by conventional logic.

I'm not saying that Victoria is perfect. It takes an awfully long time (about an hour) to get to the robbery. The movie's 138-minute length can wear on you. There also are choices (at one point a baby is put into harm's way) that create more discomfort than is necessary, a feeling that's abetted by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen's relentless hand-held camera.

Still, Schipper has taken a big risk, and it's worth taking the risk with him. Set in the early morning hours of what has been a long Berlin night, this one leaves you feeling as woozy as if you, too, had been part of a crazy, misguided and dangerous stunt.

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.