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Humanistic exploration of a controversial topic
"Omar" is so topical in content and authentic in form that it feels as though it had been ripped straight from the morning's headlines. This Oscar-nominated Palestinian film may not be as "fair and balanced" in its depiction of the seemingly endless and intractable Mid East conflict as some might wish it to be, but, like all good social dramas, the movie is far more concerned with exploring the human condition than with scoring political points.
Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young Palestinian baker who, at great risk to himself, regularly scales the massive wall that runs through occupied Palestine to hang out with his friends, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), and to carry on a secret romance with his girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany), who also happens to be Tarek's sister. The three young men are also active as "freedom fighters," dedicated to liberating their people from Israeli control. After Amjad shoots and kills an Israeli soldier, Omar is arrested and coerced into becoming a spy in exchange for his freedom. Against this backdrop of simmering social and ethical unrest, the bonds of friendship are tested in ways that will surprise and move you.
Though the geographic, sectarian and boundary issues could be a bit more clearly defined for audiences less familiar with the area, the screenplay by Hany Abu-Assad finds its truth in its portrayal of what day-to-day life is like for the ordinary people who call that part of the world home. Omar and his buddies may be passionately partisan about their cause, but that doesn't mean they aren't complex, three- dimensional characters in their own right. For underneath all the outward bravado and righteous bluster, they are still just "boys" after all, with all the interests and concerns that all young men have who are embarking on this journey we call life - a journey made all the more arduous and challenging by the world in which they live.
Assad's direction is taut when it needs to be (particularly in the striking foot chases through the narrow streets and alleyways of the prison-like city) and observant and patient when that is what is called for.
All the actors are excellent, but special mention must be made of young Bakri, who, as the title character, runs the emotional gamut from explosive to sheepish without missing a beat, his sly, toothy grin standing in direct counterpoint to his steely gaze and serious mien. It is Bakri who largely cuts through the polemics and who makes the story one that all of us can relate to. Well worth seeing.
L'image manquante (2013)
Unique portrayal of a human holocaust
History, it is said, is written by the victors. But sometimes, it is the victims - or more accurately, the survivors - who get to do the writing. That is the case with Rithy Panh, a Cambodian who survived the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Panh was a mere a child when he suffered the loss of his parents and siblings in the various grueling work camps to which they had been consigned. As an adult, Panh went on to become a documentary filmmaker dedicated to telling his story to the world. It was a purge aimed mainly at the intelligentsia of Cambodian society - the well-off and educated - who posed the greatest threat to the regime's vision of a collectivist agrarian utopia.
Where, Panh asks, are all the pictures of children starving, of people being worked into the grave that more accurately portray the reality of this 20th Century holocaust? Somehow, those were not recorded and preserved for posterity. Instead, we get a series of grainy propaganda images - of workers seemingly happy in their toil, of leaders of the revolution inspiring the masses with their promises of a Communist paradise - that were officially sanctioned by the government. So Panh has taken it upon himself to provide the "missing" pictures the Pol Pot regime failed to provide to the world.
The Oscar-nominated documentary "The Missing Picture" is a stark, haunting illustration of what life was like under Pol Pot's brutal dictatorship. The director alternates between grainy, mostly black-and- white footage taken at the time and diorama-style re-creations using strategically arranged and intricately carved clay figurines. These frozen, expressionless figures, with their searching, unblinking eyes, lift the suffering that the actual people endured to a near-surreal level, while the wistful, soft-spoken narration by Jean-Baptiste Phou echoes the human tragedy at the core. Indeed, the approach Panh has taken manages to personalize a holocaust that, given its enormous breadth and scope - an estimated one to three million people died under the regime - would otherwise be incomprehensible to the human mind. "The Missing Picture," by "going small," paradoxically helps us to see the tragedy writ large.
Endless Love (2014)
Trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear
Though "Endless Love" feels like a rehash of "The Notebook" (as if one were needed), it's actually a remake of a long-forgotten film from 1980, starring Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt, based on the novel by Scott Spencer. In fact, if that film is remembered at all, it's probably as much for the drippy, inexplicably popular title song (sung by Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie) as for the movie itself (it also marked the screen debut of Tom Cruise, which gives it some historical significance).
This is another of those dime-a-dozen romances between two kids from opposite sides of the tracks (as always, the adolescents are portrayed by actors long out of their teens). Jade is a poor-little-rich-kid who's just graduated high school and is about to embark on a promising career in medicine. David, on the other hand, is all ready to set up life as a mechanic in his dad's garage. The movie has to find a way to explain how the beautiful Jade, who would clearly be the most popular girl in any high school in the United States, just happens to be the least popular girl at this one. Turns out Jade's brother died of cancer a few years back and she's been isolating with her family ever since.
"Endless Love" lines up its cast of stereotypes in dutiful fashion: the snooty rich folk, the jealous exes, the super-supportive mother and brother, the wisecracking sidekick, and the over-protective, elitist dad who fairly drips with disdain for the lower social orders, of whom David is a prime example, and who will stop at nothing to keep such a boy from marrying his daughter.
Jade is such a dreamy-eyed dolt and David such a paragon of dime-novel romance that it becomes impossible for us to identify with either one of them as actual people. Even David's allegedly troubled background seems gussied-up and phony, a bit of back story tacked on to make him more relatable to the audience. It doesn't work.
Riddled with cheesy dialogue and ridiculous plot points, especially in the melodramatic finale, this sappy, white-bread take on "Romeo and Juliet" (minus the poetry, of course) scrapes the bottom of the barrel as far as recent movie romances go. Though, come to think of it, at least they dropped that dreadful song. That's at least one point in the movie's favor.
Devil's Due (2014)
Paint-by-numbers "Blair Witch" knock-off
You'd think by this time that people would have finally figured out that they need to stop filming every single second of their lives or they're liable to wind up as the subject of the next "found footage" horror film. Honestly, have none of these people ever even seen "The Blair Witch Project," let alone its too-numerous-to-count imitations? Well, young Zach McCall ("Friday Night Lights"s Zach Gilford) apparently hasn't, or he'd know better than to head down to a voodoo-infested locale like Santa Domingo for his honeymoon - "dark tourism," anyone? - documenting every ill-fated moment as he goes.
At any rate, something mighty untoward happens to the newlywed couple while they're down there, and when they return to the States, Samantha (Allison Miller) finds herself pregnant despite the fact that she has been on the pill for ages. Suffice it to say, Mia Farrow's Rosemary has nothing on this poor girl when it comes to a questionable conception, followed by a monumentally troubled pregnancy and delivery.
"Devil's Due" might have been effective were it not so utterly derivative of so many films that have come before it. As it is, there are a few moments of eeriness and suspense, but most of the time we keep expecting the movie to do something different with its threadbare material and it never does. Maybe the "found footage" genre has simply run its course. One can only hope.
Vampire Academy (2014)
Pathetic mishmash of much better sources
Nestled in the wilderness of rural Montana, St. Vladimir's is like a Hogwarts Academy for fledgling bloodsuckers. The main vampire-in- training is Lissa (Lucy Fry), who, after a number of years living on the "outside," is back at school to finish up her education. She's accompanied by Rose (Zoey Deutch), a sassy, feisty human who serves as Lissa's 24/7 "guardian" and with whom she shares a psychic connection.
While St. Vladimir's curriculum may run to such unconventional subjects as magic, compulsion, martial arts and Romanian history, the school itself plays host to all the cliques, backbiting and teenage hanky panky that exist in even the least supernatural of high schools.
There are "good" vampires and "bad" vampires and all sorts of in-between vampires, but "The Vampire Academy," which is based on a 2007 novel by Richelle Mead, is just a pale imitation of "Twilight" and "The Vampire Diaries." What's different is the flippant, sarcastic tone that's supposed to make it hipper and more self-aware than those straighter takes on the subject. But the effort falls flat simply because kitsch that doesn't take itself seriously is always far worse than kitsch that does, mainly because it demonstrates a lack of respect for its fan base. All this is true of "Vampire Academy," despite the best efforts of Deutch and "Modern Family"'s Sarah Hyland, who plays the nerdy chatterbox of the undead set. Somehow, top-tier actor Gabriel Byrne has also wandered - inadvertently, one presumes - onto the set, but even a performer of his caliber can't manage to breathe life into this toothless take on the already over-saturated teen-vampire genre.
Though the movie wraps things up with a tidy moral message at the end, there's the ominous suggestion that there may indeed be a sequel in the offing (there are many more books in the series from which to cull further material, which already doesn't look promising). Let's hope someone drives a stake through this particular movie's heart before it rises from its coffin to do any further damage.
Run & Jump (2013)
Intriguing look at family dynamics
Just how fluid is our definition of "family"?
Conor (Edward MacLiam) is an Irish carpenter who, at the age of 34, is unexpectedly felled by a stroke. Though he will never again be the man he was, Conor recovers sufficiently to allow him to return home to his wife, Vanetia (Maxine Peak), and two children. However, he is accompanied by Ted Fielding (a generally miscast Will Forte), an American brain specialist who moves in with the family so he can monitor and study Conor's condition on a 24/7 basis. While Ted, a single man without a wife or children of his own, is supposed to remain a neutral, emotionally detached observer of the situation, he finds himself more and more filling the void left by Conor, slipping into the role of father to the children and husband to the wife. Will Conor erupt in a jealous rage at this blatant disruption of his family unit, or will he have the grace to accept the fact that Ted can provide for his loved ones in a way that he himself no longer can?
Written by Ailbhe Keogan and Steph Green and directed by Green, "Run & Jump" is an unassuming, slice-of-life drama that is less about a man's struggle to overcome the harsh hand that's been dealt him and more about the effect that hand is having on those around him. How, the movie asks, does one re-establish a familial norm when the dynamics have effectively shifted and everyone's role in that family has been essentially redefined? This relationship-shuffling manifests itself in some surprising ways. Conor's stroke, for instance, has clearly affected the part of his brain that censors what he says, a condition that proves most taxing to his gay teenage son, who must suffer his dad's withering homophobic comments, keen in the knowledge that they reflect his own father's true, unfiltered feelings towards him. And there are many such examples.
Despite a certain sketchiness in some of the storytelling, "Run & Jump" is, for the most part, a poignant case study in family dynamics, one that both avoids melodrama and refuses to cast judgments on its characters as it explores the complexities of human relationships.
Tim's Vermeer (2013)
Fascinating dissertation on the relationship between science and art
What exactly is the relationship between science and art? Are they entirely separate domains or is there, Venn-diagram-like, some overlap between them?
The 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer has long been considered the world's master of the "photographic" painting. So lifelike, in fact, are Vermeer's works that it has long been speculated that he may have used some kind of scientific device available at the time to help him achieve the effect. Well, filmmaker Penn Jillette, with the help of Tim Jenson - an inventor, NOT a painter - has decided to get to the bottom of the controversy. The result is "Tim's Vermeer," a brief (76 minutes), fast-paced and utterly absorbing documentary that provides an aesthetic and intellectual feast for art lovers and quite a feast for lovers of science as well.
Since this IS Penn Jillette we're talking about here - an illusionist who is also a tireless advocate for rationalism and empiricism - it's fitting that the movie would apply scientific precepts to its analysis of art. Tim hypothesizes that Vermeer may have used a device called a camera obscura combined with a small portable mirror to achieve an unprecedented verisimilitude in his paintings. It's pure speculation, since Vermeer left no notes behind documenting his creative and technical process. So Tim has decided to paint his own "Vermeer" using the technique he postulates the artist himself used, and to document that process on film.
To that end, Tim has chosen Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" as his subject to copy, going so far as to recreate the room, along with the people and objects contained therein, of the original painting down to the smallest detail, only utilizing (and even crafting, if necessary) lenses, mirrors, lighting and paints that were in existence in the 1600s. It is a project that would take five full years to complete.
If Vermeer did indeed use these optic "tricks" to achieve his effect, does that somehow diminish him as an artist? Does it make his skill as a painter less astonishing, even if it heightens his ingenuity as an inventor and problem-solver? Probably no more so than a second-rate painter being able to replicate (i.e., "forge") any art masterpiece diminishes the talent of the original artist. And why would it be considered "cheating" for an artist to incorporate all the technological devices available to him at the time to help him in his painting? Why must there exist an arbitrary and artificial dividing line between science and art? These are the questions that Teller's fascinating little movie brings to the fore.
But isn't it better just to keep it all as a mystery, to declare Vermeer an artistic genius of the first rank and leave it at that? Perhaps, but then we wouldn't have "Tim's Vermeer" to inspire and engage us.
The Lego Movie (2014)
Full of energy and imagination
The cheerfully dystopic "The Lego Movie" is like a family-friendly version of "A Brave New World," with a little bit of "The Matrix" thrown in for good measure
Emmet Brickowski is a rule-following, law-abiding "good citizen," just like all the other countless conformist drones who make up the futuristic society in which he lives. Only Emmet is even more average than the average Average Joe, as evidenced by the fact that even the people he works with aren't really sure who he is. In true dystopic fashion, he lives in a society that demands unthinking and unquestioning obedience to the status quo, making it easier for those in positions of authority - particularly the arch-villain Lord Business - to accrue ever more power without any pesky resistance from the effectively pacified unwashed masses. Until, that is, Emmet is informed that, unlikely as it may seem, he just may be the long-awaited Messianic figure, know as The Master Builder, whom, it has been prophesied, will one day appear on the scene to mount a revolt against the tyrannical system and lead his fellow citizens to freedom.
Even though he's essentially an animated Lego figure, Emmet turns out to be the single most endearing everyman hero we've been asked to fall in line behind in quite some time. And the always under-appreciated Chris Pratt ("Everwood," "Parks and Recreation," "Guardians of the Galaxy") deserves much of the credit for that. So, too, do the writers, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who co-directed the film as well.
To add to the spirit of anarchic fun, a host of historical and pop culture figures, from Lincoln and Shakespeare to Superman and Batman to the casts of "Harry Potter" and "Star Wars," make cameo appearances in the film.
There's also a parallel story that takes place in the "real world" that underlines the part imagination and role-playing have in bringing people together.
Imaginative plotting, first-rate animation and sharp, snappy writing - backed by outstanding voice work by Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman - instantly place "The Lego Movie" in the pantheon of great computer- animated films.
13 Sins (2014)
How low can you go?
"13 Sins" has a lot in common with another recent low-budget, independent film, "Cheap Thrills." In both, a down-on-his-luck young man, driven by extreme desperation, agrees to perform a series of unsavory/immoral/illegal acts in exchange for ever larger quantities of money.
The protagonist of "13 Sins," a psychological thriller written by David Birke and Daniel Stamm and directed by Stamm, is Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber), a harried and harassed insurance agent who has a number of people depending on him for their livelihood and support. These include his pregnant fiancé ("True Blood's" Rutina Wesley), his mentally- challenged younger brother (Devon Graye) and a cantankerous racist dad (Tm Power) who's been evicted from his home and now has to move in with Elliot and his black girlfriend. Then Elliot is summarily fired from his job, leaving him utterly bereft and desperate, until, that is, he receives a call from a mysterious stranger who offers to make Elliot a fortune if he successfully performs 13 tasks as part of a surreal "game show," the hitch being that he can't let anyone in on what he's doing or he'll lose all his winnings.
At first the tasks seem simple enough, but as they escalate in intensity, it quickly becomes apparent that the object of the game is to "show that anyone can be turned into a monster." And Elliot is only too willing to prove that point.
The mood is grim and the humor pitch-black in this Kafkaesque tale of an ordinary man caught in an incomprehensible nightmare from which he cannot awaken, a nightmare filled with shadowy figures and disembodied voices that hold him in their implacable grip - though, if truth be told, the lure of easy wealth can be awfully hard to resist, even when the price is as potentially dear as it is here. The movie is creepy and disturbing in its unflinching look at the morally depraved depths to which desperate people will sink in an effort to ameliorate their situation. It forces us to look at a lot of unsettling aspects of human nature - aspects we might not be all that willing to face - but that's what makes it an effective little horror film in the long run.
Pozitia copilului (2013)
The difficulties of letting go
A haunting slide-of-life drama from Romania, "Child's Pose" explores the strained relationship between a middle-aged mother and her adult son, set within the context of an unspeakable human tragedy.
Cornelia Keneres, portrayed with masterful understatement and restraint by Luminita Gheorghiu, is a haughty, emotionally aloof woman who, nevertheless, just can't seem to cut the cords that bind her to her only child, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). Barbu, of course, resents his mother's endless interference in his life, an interference that is only intensified when he tragically runs over and kills a 14-year-old boy who's crossing a freeway on which Barbu is driving recklessly. Because Barbu seems devoid of initiative in trying to make things right with both the legal system and the family of the victim, Cornelia launches into full Mama Bear mode, lavishing large sums of money in her wake as she attempts to clean up the life-shattering mess her son has made for himself and others. Is Cornelia now paying the consequences for treating her son as a child for so long? Is that why he now finds himself unable to step up to the plate and accept responsibility for his actions as a mature adult should?
Filmed in a wholly realistic and naturalistic style, "Child's Pose" is about as far from melodrama as a movie about life-and-death issues could possibly be. There are no grand speeches, no emotional outbursts springing from the tragic events of the story. The movie makes us feel as if we are eavesdropping on these people as they go about the business of trying to make sense of an entirely senseless situation. As such, we get to witness first-hand the agony and grief, the bitterness and guilt, and the thirst for redemption that the various characters are going through.
As embodied by the extraordinary Gheorghiu, Cornelia becomes a fascinatingly complex character made up of any number of inconsistencies and contradictions. For instance, she's constantly deriding Barbu for not being a man, for making a mess of his life and not fulfilling the hopes she and his father had for him when he was younger. Yet, it is her very insistence on meddling, mothering him and stepping in to solve all his problems that is the key factor in making him this way. And is she truly moved by the concerns of the grieving parties or is she motivated more by the fate of her own son and the guilt she might be feeling for the way she raised him?
Flawlessly written and directed by Cailin Peter Netzer (with Razvan Radulescu as co-writer), the movie ends on a powerful note, one that hints at the barest possibility for reconciliation and redemption for the individuals involved. It's a largely wordless moment, heartbreakingly silent and obliquely shot, and it is a moment that will linger long in the memory of anyone who sees it.