IRRATIONAL MAN (2015)

July 30, 2015

irrational man Greetings again from the darkness. Woody Allen turns 80 years old later this year, and he continues to crank out a new movie every 12 -15 months. While his production level is impressive, many of his films cause us to question if possibly fewer films, each receiving a bit more attention to detail, might prove more effective. Revisiting one of his favorite themes – life is meaningless – this latest provides a funked-up burned-out philosophy professor as our tour guide.

We feel for the three lead actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey. Somehow all three roles are underwritten, causing some awkward moments on screen as these talented folks grasp for inspiration or direction in many scenes. The character of Abe (Mr. Phoenix) is introduced as a brilliant mind and popular teacher who has a reputation of being intimate with his students. When we first see him, he’s but a paunchy, alcoholic shell of a man … nearly oblivious to social graces. Jill (Ms. Stone) is the talented and gregarious student, and daughter of two professors, who should be entirely too smart to fall for anyone as self-loathing and careless as Abe. Drawing the shortest of all short straws is Ms. Posey as the stereotypical middle-aged woman seeking excitement somewhere other than her stable husband.

Evidently quoting Kant is designed to provide depth to character and story, and trick us into thinking existentialism is the only topic worthy of discussion … as long as it occurs while sucking down beer and nursing a flask. We are to believe that Abe’s decision to carry out a horrific crime can be justified since the victim was not a “good person” and it leads to a shift in attitude and renewed interest in life and yes, even sex. The film’s title does little to extinguish the writer/director’s apparent belief that questionable personal actions do not make a bad person. It seems real life and cinema have intersected yet again.

There are many topics touched on here, though unfortunately the story merely scratches the multiple surfaces. The professor’s reputation precedes his arrival, but we are never given any indication what makes him brilliant … what makes him popular with students … or what makes him attractive to so many. The idea of a crime being justified if the victim is not a credit to society has been explored much better in numerous other stories. Murder acting as Abe’s muse may be the most intriguing aspect of the script, but it’s treated mostly as a gimmick and never allowed to fully develop. Lastly, there are a couple of lines that seem to contradict each other. One is related to whether a passionate thinker can change the world, while the other says “wishing doesn’t work”. Again, these competing thoughts could have been explored and provided more thought-inducing moments. Instead, we are left with an excellent jazz score (especially the Ramsey Lewis Trio) on a paved road with few answers to the basic philosophical questions offered up by default.

watch the trailer:

 


A LEGO BRICKUMENTARY (2015, doc)

July 30, 2015

lego Greetings again from the darkness. Toys can be fun, educational, relaxing, challenging, and yes, even profitable. No toy exemplifies all of these characteristics better than LEGO. Co-directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge go “Beyond the Brick” (the film’s original title) as they explore the history and community of these fascinating plastic pieces.

Founder Ole Kirk Christiansen (of Denmark) began as a maker of wooden toys, but in 1947 he discovered a plastic molding machine which, within a couple of years, revolutionized his company and the toy industry. The company is still family-owned and is now a $4 billion company and the second largest in the industry despite competing in only one category of toys. It’s a remarkable business case study, and an equally remarkable study in social impact. If you own LEGO pieces from 1955, they will still work with the bricks and pieces being produced today … planned obsolescence is not part of the LEGO business strategy.

The film introduces us to the designers, the master builders, and the community of LEGO aficionados known as AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO). We also learn of a LEGO language filled with acronyms that permeate the competitions, fairs, and conferences.

In the early 2000’s, the company posted its first ever loss, but quickly rebounded by listening to their loyal customer base and making the necessary product changes. Last year’s award-winning animated THE LEGO MOVIE has stimulated even more interest in the tubes and studs … as well as permanently stamping our brains with the “Everything is Awesome” song.

Jason Bateman narrates the film – as a minifig – and adds a splash of color and visual acumen to the story telling process. It’s important to note that visuals are a key factor in some of the breathtaking creations of the brand’s most committed devotees. This includes the work of one who re-creates classical artwork for a gallery in NYC, and a stunning life-sized model of the Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter in Manhattan. We also see how LEGO plays a role as Autism therapy for kids, and even for mock-ups at NASA.

The LEGO community is most impressive. They actually participate in suggesting and designing new products, and the online network of LEGO stop-action short films act as a combined marketing strategy and challenge to other users. LEGOLAND doesn’t draw much attention here, but the loyalty and creativity of the customers is quite something to behold. It’s a reminder that the smartest companies collaborate with (rather than dictate to) their customer base … but most can only dream of this deep LEGO relationship with AFOL.

watch the trailer:

 


SAMBA (France, 2015)

July 30, 2015

samba Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano delivered one of the best movies of 2012 with The Intouchables, and reunite to adapt a novel from Delphine Coulin. It’s another “odd couple” story, this time focusing on Samba (Omar Sy) and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The familiar blend of drama and comedy is present, and the French immigration process takes a few shots.

Omar Sy exploded on the scene in The Intouchables and again proves what a tremendous screen presence he has. However this time his turn is mostly dramatic, while the bulk of the comedy arrives courtesy of his friend Wilson (played by Tahar Rahim from A Prophet). Ten years ago, Samba immigrated to France from Senegal, and has been sending money home ever since. A police incident leaves Samba in danger of being deported, and he receives help from Alice, an inexperienced immigration worker who is dealing with her own issues … she’s a hard core corporate burn out (hide your cell phone fellas!).

Given the subject matter, the film is much funnier and pleasant to watch than one might expect. The actors listed above, along with Izia Higelin as another immigration worker, are all wonderful and interesting to watch as their characters struggle through the hand they’ve been dealt. Samba and Wilson steal moments of joy while living in constant fear of being discovered, while Alice is borderline depressive and insomniac. She and Samba spend much of the movie in clumsy flirtations while their stressful situations swirl around. It’s awkward to watch, but we do find ourselves hoping things work out for each of them.

A very promising opening sequence contrasts the attendees of a high-dollar wedding with the working class of those in the kitchen- of which Samba is one. Unfortunately, this contrast is mostly hinted at for the rest of the film, except for one terrific “back and forth/ him and her” segment. The best guess is that there is an outstanding dramatic story hidden by the overuse of comedy. While the laughs are legitimate and appreciated, the film leaves us feeling a bit empty, given the lack of information and insight we take away in regards to French immigration.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THAT SUGAR FILM (2015, doc)

July 29, 2015

that sugar film Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since Morgan Spurlock provided us with a gut check on the evils of McDonalds with his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, movie goers have shown a real appetite for information on food and nutrition. We have since had informative and entertaining documentaries on wheat, corn, fat, organics and gardening. This latest sweet film comes from Australian director Damon Gameau. He takes the Spurlock approach and personally becomes a lab rat to expose the effects of too much sugar. His mission is 60 days of eating “typical” sugar intake through what would ordinarily be considered “healthy” foods. In other words: no ice cream, candy or soda.

Mr. Gameau introduces himself as a healthy guy who exercises regularly and eats a diet of mostly fruits and vegetables. His girlfriend is 6 months pregnant as he begins this 60 day experiment into the world of sugar. There is a quick history lesson on how sugar became a food staple, and fellow Australian Hugh Jackman explains the pivotal event that occurred in 1955 – a Dwight Eisenhauer heart attack. This spurred debate between US doctors who blamed it on high fat, while the British doctors attributed it to an excess of sugar. The low-fat revolution began, and was actually responsible for the increased amount of sugar in our processed foods. We learn that a full 80% of the standard products on grocery store shelves contain added sugar.

A panel of medical experts provides the necessary tests upfront that set the baseline for blood work, enzyme levels, liver function, weight, etc. The comparison 60 days later is frightening, but it’s Gameau’s daily journey that provides the real insight and biggest eye-openers. He doesn’t spend much time focusing on any particular brands, though Pepsi (Mountain Dew), Coca-Cola and Jamba Juice each takes some serious jabs. Instead we witness his mood swings and lack of motivation for exercise.

British actor Stephen Fry explains the Glucose/Fructose make-up of Sucrose and we are given an overview of how our bodies process this – including a briefing on the role of insulin. As the days go on, we witness Gameau’s weight gain and he explains his lethargy and most surprisingly, his mental inconsistencies. He has bouts of cloudiness in a mind that was once clear. It’s this and the dramatic change in his liver that delivers the real scare.

It seems clear that all calories are not created equally (a calorie from an apple is not processed the same as a calorie from a Snickers), and that food companies have put much effort into hiding, or at least disguising, the amount of sugars added to the massive amount of processed food consumed each year by the average person. Perhaps Diabetes and Obesity and tooth decay are not thought to be immediate enough threats to cause a shift away from the convenience of processed food. Mr. Gameau shows just how dramatic and severe the changes can be in only 60 days. So imagine 5 years. 25 years. Just how much warning do we need?

watch the trailer:

 


SOUTHPAW (2015)

July 26, 2015

southpaw Greetings again from the darkness. Is it possible to have a boxing movie without a crusty old trainer? Or a cute kid?  Or a stubborn macho lead who makes poor personal choices?  It doesn’t seem to matter much as this latest from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) checks off most of the expected cliché’s, and still slides easily into the canon of boxing movies that now covers nine decades.

This one packs a satisfactory punch both inside the ring and out. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope (the name courtesy of first time screenwriter Kurt Sutter, known for “Sons of Anarchy”). Mr. Hope follows the expected arc: 1. On top of the World! 2. A nasty crash landing  3. Redemption and comeback. However, just because we are familiar with the trail, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the hike.

Gyllenhaal continues his impressive string of performances that include End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler. In the latter, he transformed his body by losing 40 pounds. This time, he packs on the muscle to become convincing as a boxer. The recent trend of actors getting fat, skinny, ripped or ugly to attract awards attention is nothing new to Gyllenhaal, who has made a career of melding into his roles.

The supporting cast includes Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife. The two share a background as orphans in Hell’s Kitchen and have a strong relationship with each other and their young daughter played by Oona Laurence. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays Hope’s long-time manager who telegraphs his true colors much too early (and no, this doesn’t refer to the recent news involving Mr. Jackson). Naomie Harris is a bit underutilized as the social worker, but the film is at its best once Forest Whitaker enters as Hope’s last hope (sorry). Mr. Whitaker always elevates a film with his presence, and his character here would have provided a boost with even more screen time.

A few topics are touched upon, though none very deeply. The father-daughter story line was pretty effective, but the anger management issue could have been explored more effectively since it was so crucial to the story and Hope’s personality.

Eminem provides some new music for the film, and it should be noted that this was the final score composed by the great James Horner, who only recently passed away. Sure the film “borrows” from Rocky and Raging Bull and many other boxing classics, but at least it doesn’t go full “Champ” on us.

watch the trailer:

 


PAPER TOWNS (2015)

July 23, 2015

paper towns Greetings again from the darkness. If you have ever watched Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, imagine what the characters of Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels would have been like in high school. That gives you some idea of Margo and Quentin in this latest screen adaptation of a John Green novel (he also wrote “The Fault in Our Stars”).

Margo (Cara Delevingne) is the “live life to the fullest” youngster, while Quentin (Nat Wolff) is the “college-career-family” type who has his life timeline fully planned. As kids in the same neighborhood, they hang out together, but the inherent personality differences lead to polar opposite paths in high school. Margo is the exciting girl that everyone aspires to, while Quentin and his band of geeky friends never skip class, turn in all assignments and are elite college bound. Everything changes one night when Margo climbs through Quentin’s window and enlists his help in an evening of revenge shenanigans. He falls hard for her, and then … POOF … she’s gone.

It’s at this point that the film bogs down a bit. See, Margo loves a mystery and Quentin must decipher her many clues, as he is convinced she wants him to find her so they can be soul mates forever. Fortunately, the inevitable road trip provides some fun banter for Quentin and his brood, and it’s here where the true life lessons occur … friendship and finding happiness with one’s self.

Amiable is the best word to describe most of the characters in this film from director Jake Schreir (Robot & Frank). These are good kids and each very likeable … not the rebellious teens that usually get movies made about them. But they are so amiable, that there is a glaring lack of conflict in the vast majority of scenes. It’s as if the darkness and hard edge were purposefully sucked out of the Green novel. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, the formulaic approach is quite surprising. These are the writers behind (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars … three scripts that pulled few punches. On the bright side, the film is brave enough to include a Confederate flag joke, and what may be the best ever on screen tuba joke, and the all-too-rare multiple Black Santa Claus gags.

Newcomer Cara Delevingne looks like Mariel Hemingway but has the attitude of a young Linda Fiorentino. It will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. Nat Wolff was a secondary character in The Fault in Our Stars, but his natural ease on screen allows for a quick transition to leading actor. Support work comes from Justice Smith as Radar, Jaz Sinclair as his girlfriend, Halston Sage as pretty girl Lacey, and Austin Abrams as the comedy-relief buddy. Since it’s 2015, you know there must be a Duplass Brothers connection, and this time it’s Jay appearing as an English teacher. For those fans of The Fault in Our Stars, yes, Ansel Elgort has a cameo.

The film version is definitely for romantics, and not for those looking for hard-edged life journey. It’s actually a welcome change to have nice kids share the screen and have conversations without gratuitous violence, profanity or nudity. Because of this, it’s pleasant enough to watch, but probably won’t stick with you like the others mentioned here.

watch the trailer:

 


THE MAMA SHERPAS (2015, doc)

July 23, 2015

mama sherpas Greetings again from the darkness. If you are not directly involved, it’s easy to underestimate, or even remain oblivious, to the stress involved as an expectant mother makes baby-delivery decisions. In this age of readily available information, women can no longer simply accept what their doctor says. Documentarian Brigid Maher sets out to educate us on the options available to pregnant women.

Ms. Maher opens our eyes to the growing trend of collaboration between doctors and midwives. One of the key factors in this shift is the fact that nearly one in three babies are now delivered via cesarean (C-section), even though the World Health Organization (WHO) says the figure should be closer to 15%. To her credit, Ms. Maher doesn’t attack the medical establishment, but rather focuses on the positive effects of the collaboration. Speaking from her personal experience (as a VBAC – Vaginal Birth After Cesarian), and also presenting numerous actual case studies, she expertly guides us through various birth methods including yoga birth, hypnobirthing, and waterbirthing … each a form of natural birth in a hospital environment.

Viewers should be prepared for some up close and very personal camera work – especially when demonstrating that natural birth is even a possibility (in some cases) with a breech baby, a big baby, babies showing little progress, and extended-labor cases which have always been stressful to mother and child.

Executive Producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein have allowed Ms. Maher to expose this little-known network of highly supportive midwives and doctors who firmly believe that Natural childbirth is preferable whenever possible. These folks (not surprisingly almost all women) are committed to the cause of helping the mother and baby through the process.

This will prove informative to some, and inspirational to many … though, of course, many within the traditional medical industry (the industry responsible for 33% c-sections) will argue that this method is unsafe for mother and baby. It doesn’t appear this position holds water, as the collaborative method covers both the medical facilities and the natural (lack of medication) bonding between a mother and child. What a miracle of nature to behold!

watch the trailer:

https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=the+mama+sherpas+trailer

 


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