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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Full Frame (Saturday): It's not paranoia if they're really after you

Posted by on Sun, Apr 12, 2015 at 10:46 AM

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Update: After this post, (T)ERROR won The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award, sharing the prize, for the first time in Full Frame history, with another film, Kings of Nowhere. See the full list of award-winners, which were announced yesterday, here.

Audiences mainlining three full days of this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival could be excused if they donned tin foil hats and began speaking Esperanto.

At a minimum, festivalgoers might feel a distinct disincentive to live near a nuclear power facility (Containment) or coal mine (Overburden), call the police (Peace Officer), use the Internet (Deep Web), or travel to Russia (The Term), Mexico (Cartel Land and Kingdom of Shadows) or any Texas border town (Western, screening tonight).

Of course, past Full Frame festivals also curbed my desire to visit Sea World (Blackfish) and eat at McDonald’s (Super Size Me). Well, maybe not the last one ...

These trepidations aren’t paranoia, which entails delusions of persecution and unwarranted suspicion. The real and very frightening issues addressed in those and other Full Frame selections such as 3½ Minutes and Uyghurs, Prisoners of the Absurd are the products of stark, sober and skilled documentary filmmaking.

In that vein, Full Frame Saturday also brought (T)ERROR, an engrossing and multi-faceted look at domestic counterterrorism through the eyes and exploits of Saeed “Shariff” Torres, a 63-year-old ex-Black Panther and longtime paid FBI informant. Saeed gave filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe extraordinary and surreptitious access to his latest assignment, an undercover sting targeting Khalifa, a white thirtysomething Muslim convert living in Pittsburgh.

Producers tout (T)ERROR as the first documentary that embeds filmmakers inside an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. In so doing, the film tackles highly relevant and weighty issues of governmental surveillance and law enforcement overreach.

But that achievement only scratches the surface of the complex character studies that lend (T)ERROR its narrative depth. Is Khalifa a dangerous radical-in-waiting, a victim of an unjust legal system or a loudmouthed but otherwise harmless knucklehead?

Meanwhile, is Saeed a wise curmudgeon who has accepted the realities of this world and parlayed them to his benefit? Is he a duplicitous snitch? Is he a hero? Or is he a sociopath, a character trait that makes him an effective informant but left him estranged from his friends and culture?

In tackling these questions, Sutcliffe and Cabral—whose conflicted acquaintance with Saeed gave rise to this film project—utilize both vérité and retrospective footage. The directors also remarkably shift their focus and presentation mid-production, decisions that push the ethical envelope of documentary filmmaking. The result is a daring and intoxicating exposé bolstered by the foundation of a poignant character arc.

This year’s Full Frame superlatives will be announced Sunday at the midday Awards Barbeque. However, (T)ERROR is already my clear-cut choice as the festival’s best film. And oh … Granda Frato observas vin.

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    Neil Morris dons his tin foil hat and discovers his favorite film of the festival.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Full Frame: Cue the queues at the festival's bountiful Friday

Posted by on Sat, Apr 11, 2015 at 3:55 PM

Still from Andrew Rodgers' Crooked Candy - COURTESY OF FULL FRAME
  • courtesy of Full Frame
  • Still from Andrew Rodgers' Crooked Candy
After wading into the relatively shallow Thursday pool of opening-day films, the 18th Full Frame Documentary Festival dove headlong into its perennially plentiful Friday fare. Amid a sea of food tents and converted hotel ballrooms, it was time for the full panoply of passholders to navigate the lines winding like tributaries through the festival’s four-block radius in downtown Durham.

There are Green Lines and Blue Lines. There are Last Minute Lines. There are Will Call lines. There are lines for food and lines into the parking garage across the street from the Carolina Theatre. Still, Full Frame’s queuing process, like the festival itself, is far more orderly and manageable than larger film events throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Friday is also the day when ubiquitous huddles of festival patrons materialize, chatting over souvlaki and Caesar salad about which docs they’ve already seen and mapping out which ones they’ll attend out of the sometimes five or six showing at a time.

It’s too early to draw definite conclusions about this year’s festival with two full days of showings remaining. But a couple of themes—one anecdotal, one actual—began to emerge. One is a noticeable number of films with promising premises that peter out due to running times that outstrip their material. This is obviously a qualitative assessment that differs between viewers. However, colleagues noted a number of films with enticing subjects and/or subject-matter that couldn’t sustain run times of 80 minutes or longer.

The other, more practical issue was audio problems that beset the venerable Fletcher Hall throughout the day, causing consternation for audiences, staff and filmmakers. The six-minute short film Crooked Candy was reshown following its companion feature doc because of a sound-mixing snafu during the initial screening. The volume for Being Evel varied from EAR-SPLITTING MUSIC to muffled, barely discernible dialogue. A few audience members already in Fletcher were asked to leave and then reenter several minutes later as workers attempted to correct audio issues prior to the screening of 3½ Minutes.

However, Friday also saw two of the most highly acclaimed entries in this year’s festival. The Wolfpack, winner of the documentary U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, was given a peculiar 10 p.m. start time. And the most emotional moment of the day was the screening of 3½ Minutes, an adeptly edited courtroom drama surrounding the trial of Michael Dunn for the 2012 murder of teenager Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida. The film’s timely impact was heightened by the presence of Ron Davis, Jordan’s father, as part of a post-screening Q&A session.

Day Three of Full Frame kicked off today with a full slate that includes a 10 a.m. showing of Peace Officer, winner of the Documentary Feature Grand Jury and Audience Awards at last month’s SXSW. As I arrived at the theater, ticket takers directed me onto a circuitous 50-foot roped route to the entrance instead of an unobstructed 10-foot saunter, though there was no one ahead of me. Maybe I picked the wrong line.
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    Neil Morris braves the lines and some audio glitches to catch one of the fest's most acclaimed films, 3½ Minutes.

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Full Frame: The stories go on beyond the big screen

Posted by on Sat, Apr 11, 2015 at 10:07 AM

director Anders Riis-Hansen's The Circus Dynasty - COURTESY OF FULL FRAME
  • courtesy of Full Frame
  • director Anders Riis-Hansen's The Circus Dynasty
I’m never more thrilled at Full Frame than when the movie ends, the lights fade up and the filmmakers and subjects are there. It’s a rush. These folks have gone from random people to confidants and, as such, turned the audience from passive observers to sympathetic ears in a few frames of films. It’s proof of life—a signal that the stories being documented keep going.

For those of you who haven’t had that thrill yet, here are a few signs of life from films that have screened so far to get you inspired.

1. Conrad Anker’s sweet Instagram

Meru is a wildly compelling adventure film, but I think even the filmmakers would agree that without the relationships at its core, it’s just three guys climbing something they probably shouldn’t. (Really, they shouldn’t.)

There’s mentorship, deep friendship at the worst moments and an abounding necessity for trust. Conrad Anker, the leader at the helm—his friendships and his sweet love story—are a testament to a fiercely loyal and persevering heart.


Jimmy Chin is also active on Instagram for those interested in beautiful (and terrifying) adventure photography.

2. Freedom for Uyghurs

Guantánamo is a hellscape where justice is concerned. No story exemplifies that quite so well as Uyghurs, Prisoners of the Absurd. Once members of an oppressed minority, they fled China only to be picked up by Pakistani Army Officers and sold to the United States as terrorists and thrown in Guantánamo Bay.

This photo essay in The New York Times offers a further look into three of the so-designated “Enemy Combatants” as they arrive in Bermuda for release after seven years in judicial limbo.

3. Circus of likes

The Circus Dynasty is an interesting look behind the tent at two of the great circus families of Europe. Merrylu Casselly and Patrick Berdino are talented and in love, but the fact remains they are 21 and pressures are high. Wondering how things are going for our young lads after the fairytale? Look no further than Patrick Berdino’s public Facebook page. He’s having a great time.

4. Cory Booker is still a fan of Marshall Curry

5. Honesty on the radio

Enjoy (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies? (Don’t lie.) Then click over to Our Buggy Brain on the TED Radio Hour for more chat from Professor Dan Ariely on the subject of why we cheat.

6. The Little Fat Fish (on Vimeo!)


Part of the appeal of Curious Worlds is that artist David Beck is fairly unknown outside of the art world. The film gives a charming peek into his process and life. Desperate for more? Check out his (albeit infrequently updated) Vimeo!

Le Petite Peche ENORME from David Beck Artworks on Vimeo

7. The Overburden of big coal may be in your electricity bill


Overburden tells the heartbreaking story of Big Coal’s grip on West Virginia and the affect of profits over people. If you’re looking for information on this fight and how to contribute, check out ILoveMountains.org and enter your zip below to see if mountaintop removal coal has made it’s way to your home.


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Friday, April 10, 2015

Full Frame: We recap last night's Opening Night Party at the Durham Armory

Posted by on Fri, Apr 10, 2015 at 3:23 PM

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Through on-and-off downpours, filmmakers, festival staff, press and priority pass holders made it across the street from the Carolina Theatre to the Durham Armory last night for one of Full Frame’s most coveted tickets: the Opening Night Party. This is the festival’s prime opportunity for visiting documentarians, in town to present their films, to meet up with each other and let their hair down, sharing creative conversations over an open bar and late-night supper.

A Green Team was on site to collect the compostable cups, plates and utensils used to consume the sumptuous buffet of fresh strawberries, steamed mussels, marinated salmon, pulled barbacoa and green salsa, tabouli and orzo salads, banana pudding and baklava.

Providing audio and visual motifs, a black-and-white film was projected overhead to the chill, funky grooves of Durham jazz artist Al Strong, who teases the sound of his flugelhorn through a distortion pedal. The live music was a cross-promotion for Durham's Art of Cool Fest, just around the corner April 24–26. Strong’s crew featured drummer Kobie Watkins, bassist Kenny Phelps-McKeown and pianist Ryan Hanseler, who leaves Durham for Amsterdam later this month; Hanseler’s All-Star Farewell Performance, April 23 at Beyù Caffè, invites fans and Triangle jazz greats John Brown, Lynn Grissett, Brian Miller et al. to say goodbye.

You never know who you’ll meet at a Full Frame event; tap a shoulder and you’re likely to find a Duke vice president or a struggling filmmaker. Duke’s chief diversity officer Ben Reese was on hand as a Full Frame board member; Guatemalan-American cameraman Jeremy Bunch was there shooting the party as a volunteer.

“You have such an amazing film scene here, you should cherish it,” says Bunch, who is home-based in Oakland. His first film work isn’t showing at the festival, but the Bisbee Films documentary Don’t Cost Nothin’ to Dream follows hip-hop artists in Cuba, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Before he left, we networked and talked about the possibilities of screening the film in Durham before he leaves town.

Partygoers dispersed for bars or their beds a little after midnight, abuzz with anticipation for the next few days of marathon film-going.
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    “You have such an amazing film scene here, you should cherish it,” said visiting cameraman Jeremy Bunch.

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Full Frame: Though very different, Iris and War Photographer both leave our writer feeling “breathlessly empowered”

Posted by on Fri, Apr 10, 2015 at 10:33 AM

Iris Apfel in Albert Maysles' Iris - COURTESY OF FULL FRAME
  • courtesy of Full Frame
  • Iris Apfel in Albert Maysles' Iris
Get off your ass and make your work. That’s what I learned on the first day of Full Frame.

Thursday morning offered an unlikely double feature, Iris and War Photographer. On the surface, these two films could not be more opposite. For Iris, the late Albert Maysles followed the fabulous, hilarious, colorful fashion icon Iris Apfel as she goes about her days collecting clothing and accessories and working with gallery directors, photographers and fashion houses. War Photographer is Christian Frei’s profile of James Nachtwey as he shoots some of the world's worst combat zones and most appalling scenes of poverty and desperation.

Maysles lets you fall in love with Apfel immediately—she’s loaded with charm and wit. But as the film progressed, I noticed how his low-key editing allowed Apfel’s unique fashion vision onto the screen. You could see her choosing objects and, more importantly, relating them to other objects in the collection. Another filmmaker might have used quick-cut pans and zooms to wow viewers with the sheer variety of her collection. But it’s not about the stuff—it’s about the exponentially larger network of possible outfits that Apfel has in her head.

Frei made the remarkable choice to place a GoPro on top of Nachtwey’s camera, essentially showing the viewer precisely what Nachtwey was looking at in the moment and how he was framing it for a shot. And then you see Nachtwey’s finger twitch and hear the shutter. Frei showed us Nachtwey’s choices of shots, similar to how Maysles showed us Apfel’s choices of necklaces with blouses.

The films had other resonant moments. Apfel’s uncanny knack for shopping boutiques and flea markets, scanning racks of blouses and tabletops of scarves and necklaces for the items that sparked her intuition, connected with Nachtwey’s footage of children picking through a mountainous trash heap outside Jakarta, Indonesia, scavenging anything with resale value or of use to their families. The connection wasn’t ironic, either—instead, I saw people scanning what their culture churns out, scrutinizing it for glimmers of aesthetic or practical worth.

Iris’ lesson was to live an interesting life at every possible moment, until the very last moment. Don't be boring for a second. Nachtwey explicitly states his lesson toward the end of War Photographer—“We are required to look at it.” You are responsible for witnessing the atrocities of your times; otherwise you are choosing to be complicit with their perpetrators. Although these messages aren't the same, they are powered by the same urgency or imperative. I walked away from those back-to-back films feeling breathlessly empowered.
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    Albert Maysles' doc about fashion icon Iris Apfel and Christian Frei’s about war photographer James Nachtwey screened at Full Frame yesterday.

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Movie review: Noah Baumbach's knack for mixing verbose wit and family drama falters in While We're Young

Posted by on Fri, Apr 10, 2015 at 8:33 AM

Noah Baumbach's favorite roller-blading everyman, Ben Stiller, in While We're Young - COURTESY OF A24 FILMS
  • courtesy of A24 films
  • Noah Baumbach's favorite roller-blading everyman, Ben Stiller, in While We're Young
While We’re Young
★★
Now playing

Director Noah Baumbach’s eighth film, While We’re Young, serves up his signature existential crises of the neurotic and monied. Ben Stiller stars as Josh, a film teacher with a middling career and an eight-years unfinished documentary. Josh and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), are cruising into middle-age and beginning to become anxious about their childlessness when they meet a hip young couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

Josh and Cornelia see in Jamie and Darby all the freedom and cultural savvy of 21st-century youth. The twist is that the young couple’s aplomb is made possible by them being children of the Internet, which comes with different ideas of authenticity than those held by the Gen-X Josh and Cornelia. As Jamie’s charm wears off, his careerism starts to show. Paralyzed with insecurity, Josh is left scrambling for the prestige he feels he deserves more than Jamie. Cornelia’s father, successful documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), presides bemusedly over the whole affair as Josh’s disapproving superego.

While We’re Young clumsily tries to skewer the couples’ differing generational ethos through Josh’s paranoid fixation on a certain kind of overburdened authenticity, a premise that is certainly ripe for comedy. But for a film so critical of repurposing and reappropriating, it does a lot of recycling. Stiller, Baumbach’s everyman, is painful to watch even as he plays the same role as in all his movies of the past ten years. Watts, who usually has an operatic talent for female suffering, is given no room for substantive acting and ends up as little more than Josh’s frowny-faced accessory. Driver delivers the same glib, almost affectless performance he did in both Baumbach’s previous feature, Frances Ha, and in the television show Girls. Ultimately, no character betrays enough depth, or even egregious vapidity, to inspire an investment in them, even in their downfall.

Baumbach works in the tradition of Whit Stillman and Woody Allen, a brand of comedy that you either like or you just don’t. This brand is based on the recognition of the most subtle details and cultural references of the UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, a term coined in Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan). When it works, it’s a style of comedy that can be sharp and charming, and when it doesn’t, it comes off as pastiche with no heart. In films such as The Squid and the Whale (2005), Baumbach excelled at this mix of verbose wit and family drama. But While We’re Young is not clever, nor does it have heart.
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    Gen-X meets the Millennials in Baumbach's latest foray into existential crises of the neurotic and monied.

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Movie review: Furious 7 and the rise of the action-movie machines

Posted by on Thu, Apr 2, 2015 at 4:33 PM

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Furious 7
★★ ½
Opening Friday


There's a cringeworthy moment in Furious 7 when it appears that Paul Walker's final scene in the star-making action series will be of him trying to revive a car crash victim. (Walker, who played Brian O’Connor in The Fast and the Furious and its many sequels, died in a single-car accident in November 2013.)

Thankfully, the filmmakers spare us that insensitivity with the ensuing, rather poignant tribute to the late actor. Instead, the sight of Brian and family frolicking on a beach segues into a God’s eye view of two cars traveling side-by-side down a highway, going separate ways when they reach a fork in the road.

Beyond any intended metaphor, the shot encapsulates a film that makes the mechanization of the action genre literal. Yes, there are human actors populating the movie, some of them charmingly droll (Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson and, blessedly, Kurt Russell) and some of them automatons—Vin Diesel and villain du jour Jason Statham. 

But the actors are mostly just along for the ride, supplanted by an endless line of muscle cars and hot rods. Autos parachute from airplanes, leap between Abu Dhabi skyscrapers and hurl themselves off the edges of cliffs. It’s a film where everybody should die, but nobody does … except the machines.

For the wisp of a plot, Deckard Shaw (Statham), a rogue British special forces assassin, aims to exact revenge on Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Brian and the rest of the fast and furious crew for offing Deckard’s little brother Owen in the last movie. Tony Jaa and Ronda Rousey stop by to flex their martial arts skills, but their emoting is as robotic as the (digitized) unmanned drone that director James Wan trots out in the last act. Or just Djimon Hounsou, who shows up with even less purpose.

Furious 7 is like a feature-length rap video—lingering misogyny included—interspersed with a cacophony of roaring engines and unlimited gear shifts. Yet being so of-the-moment and escapist, it also entertains. At this point we’re in on the inanity, so a wink and a nod absolves almost any outlandishness. As long as they find bigger and louder ways to crash objects into each other, we’ll gladly fork over the cover charge.
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    While the actors are just along for the ride, the film manages to entertain and pay tribute to the late Paul Walker.

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Movie review: Meet a remarkable pianist who gave up the limelight in Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction

Posted by on Thu, Apr 2, 2015 at 12:54 PM

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in Seymour: An Introduction - COURTESY IFC FILMS
  • courtesy IFC Films
  • Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in Seymour: An Introduction
Seymour: An Introduction
★★★ ½
Opening Friday


If J.K. Simmons' turn as Whiplash’s acerbic music teacher stripped away your faith in all the pleasure and beauty found in playing music, then Seymour: An Introduction will be a restorative salve.

As indicated by its title, this sweeping, emotionally rich documentary is devoted to Seymour Bernstein, an octogenarian who abandoned his career as a classical pianist at age 50 to build a life around his true passion, teaching. Bernstein is the polar opposite of Simmons’ confrontational, bullying teacher, prodding his piano students with a guiding hand as he teaches them a precise staccato tempo in such a gentle, mesmerizing way that it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen. 

Lucky for us, actor and director Ethan Hawke found Bernstein and decided to share him with the world. Hawke, who serves as both director and a brief subject of the film, has a personal relationship with Bernstein. After a chance meeting at a dinner party, Bernstein helped shepherd Hawke through an existential crisis about creativity, purpose and achieving personal happiness.

Hawke’s queries about how to find one’s true calling and become unified with one’s art in soul, mind and body serve as a loose framework for the film. Rather than full-blown biography, it walks the line between memoir and anecdote as Bernstein shares insights culled from his own life experiences, painting evocative vignettes with his words. 

He meanders from recounting his experiences playing classical music for fellow soldiers in the Korean War to his tutelage under the great English pianist Clifford Curzon to larger lessons about the role of music in a child’s development and the differences between craft and talent. The film culminates in Bernstein’s return to the stage, an endeavor we are hungry to see, as preparations for the performance are intercut seamlessly with the personal reflections.

Hawke shines with creative brilliance as director. The only drawback is that his skill in creating quiet intrigue around Bernstein leaves you wanting to know more about him. Obviously fond of his subject, Hawke does not dig into the details of Bernstein’s post-childhood family life or romances, which leaves a blank space in an otherwise full recital. Is Bernstein a hermit? Does he have contact with anyone other than students and a few close musician friends? Who has he loved in his life? Perhaps there’s room for more than simply an introduction to this little-known but awe-inspiring man.
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    The awe-inspiring Seymour Bernstein leaves you wanting more than just an introduction.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Movie reviews: Robots, aliens, teenagers and other strange species populate Chappie and Home

Posted by on Tue, Mar 31, 2015 at 4:13 PM

Chappie - COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • courtesy of Columbia Pictures
  • Chappie
Chappie
★★★ ½
Now playing


Looking back on the ghosts of movie robots past, it’s easy to see that we often fall in love with humanity’s mechanical counterparts. The singularly sweet Wall-E is brought back from the brink of mindless droid-hood by Eva’s touch, persistence and love. R2-D2 and C-3PO reign supreme in the ranks of sidekick pairs because of their sarcastic, worrywart ways. But director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) takes loveable machines to the next level in Chappie. Framed by the unique zef culture of South Africa, lurching between bonkers set pieces, the film breathes some life into a frequently predictable storyline.

Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) plays Deon, one of the lead engineers of the scout robots that make up the majority of the Johannesburg police force. Through “live” footage of the droids working in the field alongside human officers and news broadcasts featuring real-life anchors (such as Anderson Cooper), the film goes to great lengths to establish the ramifications of this transition, particularly hammering on the question of whether we can trust a non-human in a position of power. And yes, we can, the film seems to argue at first, as the programming chip for the droids is safely locked away and can only be accessed by a few.

Deon has other plans, though—as does his nemesis, Vincent (Hugh Jackman). While the former works tirelessly to develop a robot that has its own thoughts and ideas, and eventually breaks rules to see it through, the latter glowers from a distance. His own project, laughably called "the Moose," allows a robot to be controlled only through a human consciousness—and it isn’t getting the same funding or recognition. So Vincent squeezes a rugby ball and seethes in his tiny office before utterly losing it in a Red Bull-induced rage. Neither character’s motivations are believable or developed, but this works in favor of the wonky hijinks in Blomkamp’s pop-sci-fi world.

The conscience-driven creation Chappie (voice and motion-captured by Sharlto Copley) takes a turn for the worse when it collides with the real world. A ragtag band of criminals—again, with ridiculous and far-fetched motivations—decide to kidnap Deon and, eventually, Chappie, to make a few million dollars and settle a score with some rivals.

But we’re kept on the hook—fascinated, even—because the film’s visual parameters are drawn from zef. It’s a style that is at once modern and trashy, typical of the white lower-middle class in South Africa. Chappie brings this culture to the forefront by having the notorious zef rave-rap duo Die Antwoord portray these criminals. Their fortress is a dilapidated building with paintings of bright, distorted doodles. They tote automatic weapons and gold chains. They wear smiley-face T-shirts and haircuts that look done by children. It’s no random spectacle, either. Their aesthetic is tied to an attitude about the function of art.

In an interview with Spin in 2012, one half of the duo, Ninja said, “People are unconscious and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone.” The film seems to adopt this mentality of “art as a shock machine.” An American audience will be jolted by the audacity and ease with which Ninja and Yolandi navigate their, and our, world. The idea of literally jump-starting consciousness weaves in perfectly with the main thread of the narrative.

While the sci-fi elements take off wildly down several avenues, there are also many socio-political agendas vying for attention. In the scenes between Deon, Chappie and his “parents,” the film frequently steps over the mark with its emphasis of nurture over nature in the context of class. The poor, it seems to say, can only raise criminals, and well-off engineer Deon is heralded for trying to save Chappie from that path.

Chappie also taps into to the growing fear of police brutality, and where it could go in the future. This is driven home when the dad points to a desecrated dead dog and then to another dog—caged, hungry, but surviving—and asks Chappie, “Do you want to be this dog or this dog?” As the robot succumbs to the criminal influence of its parents, the most hilarious and the most heartbreaking scenes take place. This is a more wrenching film than you might imagine—in fact, it’s downright painful, and the conclusion of Chappie’s grueling learning curve will leave your jaw on the floor of the theater.

Home
★★★★
Now playing


Aliens invading Earth is an old shtick. Who knew it could still be so fun to watch? This kids’ movie from DreamWorks adds Oh (Jim Parsons) to the pantheon of darling, accident-prone, animated outsiders. Oh struggles to fit in as one of the Boov, an alien squid-like species with a penchant for hover-crafts and an exacting form of English—“Can I be on the out now?”—that has invaded our planet. The misfit-youth theme gathers steam when Oh meets Tip (Rihanna), whose mother has been relocated with the rest of her species to the human territory on Earth. Both isolated, in their own ways, from what “home” is, the two are able to connect in a series of wacky, hilarious adventures. The voice-acting rivals pairs such as Shrek and Donkey, and Rihanna’s music, which permeates the soundtrack, works perfectly for the pair’s dynamic, mixing tender ballads and upbeat party mixes. I couldn’t imagine a better Saturday afternoon for a kid than one spent watching an alien squid and a human teen become friends and hover-drive “The Slushious.”

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    Chappie is flawed but compelling—plus, a quick take on Disney's Home

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Movie review: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is really a trial of Israel's rabbinical courts

Posted by on Fri, Mar 13, 2015 at 12:03 PM

Viviane Ansalem's attempt to escape a bad marriage is thwarted by Israel's rabbinical courts in Gett. - COURTESY OF MUSIC BOX FILMS
  • courtesy of Music Box Films
  • Viviane Ansalem's attempt to escape a bad marriage is thwarted by Israel's rabbinical courts in Gett.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
★★★★
Now playing


Under contemporary Israeli law, both marriage and divorce are controlled by rabbinical courts. There is no tradition of civil law when it comes to getting hitched or unhitched. A woman can only be divorced if she is officially presented with a religious document—called a "gett," or "get"—by her husband. If the husband refuses: no divorce.

This traditional patriarchal system comes under heavy fire in the Israeli film Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which plays out like the damnedest courtroom drama you've ever seen. The film was Israel's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, though it was not ultimately nominated.

Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane Amsalem, who reached the end of her rope many years ago and is desperate to end her miserable marriage to her cruel husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian.) Gett is the third film in a trilogy by Elkabetz and her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, on the unhappy union of these two characters.

Gett takes place almost entirely within a single room, the spartan administrative offices of the rabbinical court. From Viviane’s first day in those offices, the trial stretches out for years as the husband maliciously games the system to keep his wife shackled. Individual scenes are broken up by onscreen indicators of the insane religious-bureaucratic odyssey—"Three Weeks Later," "Six Months Later "—until an incredible five years have passed.

In the interim, we hear from a procession of witnesses, legal counsel, relatives and neighbors that testify on the marriage. As the men hold forth—the judges and lawyers are all men—debates on religion, law and society crest and crash. Meanwhile, Viviane sits helplessly, spiraling into despair and, on occasion, giddy rage. When one exchange devolves into absurdity, she breaks down into hysterical laughter. How long must she wait for the simple right to walk away from a bad marriage? (Note that some observers have objected to the film's depiction of the Israeli court system.)

There are genuinely funny moments in the witness testimony, but mostly, the film boils along with Viviane. The camera work is fascinating. Each character (or grouping of characters) is deliberately framed from the point of view of another character. The tangles of this dilemma go beyond the legal and the domestic, into realms of society, psychology and religion. For many long sequences, the frame is filled just by Viviane's face, in all its complex humanity.

It's marvelous storytelling, and the decision to confine the action in a single courtroom is bold and effective. The ending is the film's least successful element—the resolution we're so thirsty for stutters and fades into frustrating ambiguity. But this is a dense, disciplined piece of work. It's social critique, character study, feminist manifesto and legal drama. It's unlike anything else you'll see at the movies, and in the Triangle, it's playing only at the Colony in Raleigh.
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    A woman trying to escape from a bad marriage runs up against a possessive husband and a patriarchal system of marriage and divorce in modern Israel.

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