Friday, February 27, 2015

Focus [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Focus [2015] (cowritten and codirected by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) which plays like a glossier, au courant (and R-rated) version of the The Sting [1973] is, one hopes ;-), intended to be a diversion and NOT a "how to" manual for life.

There's a scene still fairly early in the film in which Nicky (played by Will Smith) an expert/hardened, third generation conman and his partner Farhad (played by Adrian Martinez) organize "a crew" of about dozen pickpockets in New Orleans in the days before a (Super?) Bowl Game.  Among them was then a 20-something year-old "apprentice" named Jess (played by Margot Robbie) who as a small-time grifter ran into Nicky before and now wanted "to learn from the best."  These pickpockets then walk then the length of Bourbon Street as if they were a phalanx and fleece the revelers as if they were harvesting corn.  One bumped a tourist on the left, another took his wallet from his right.  And before he even realized that the wallet was gone, he's bumped again and as he swings his arm to regain his balance, someone unburdens him of his watch.  In this _spectacularly choreographed_ "ballet of thieves," the crew passed methodically through the crowd, harvesting their valuables as if they were a combine passing through a field ;-).

Improbable, yes, but AMAZING to watch ;-) ... But ALSO PLEASE DON'T THINK IT WOULD BE THAT EASY and IN ANY CASE, stealing is one of the sins _specifically listed_ in the Ten Commandments:  Thou Shalt Not Steal (Ex 20:15).

But presented on screen, here, does it look SOOO, SOOOO... COOL ;-) ... Even if, again, we Catholics are asked in the renewal of our Baptismal promises: "Do you reject the glamour of Evil and refuse to be mastered by Sin?"

So this is a problematic movie ... even if I do believe that most people will take it as a "wouldn't it be nice..." _day-dream_ and little more.

But we are dealing with Evil here.  So part of the film's sound-track is The Rolling Stones' über (and ever intentionally so...) glamorous / slick song, Sympathy for the Devil.  And Nick and Jess, both portrayed as über attractive / slick people, are shown repeatedly hopping into bed with each other throughout the course of the film (though always in various stylized ways that does leave most to the imagination) as they go through one "con" after another.   Why?  Why would they hop into bed with each other after each ever better-executed "con"?  Well, I suppose because they were BOTH BECOMING SO _DAMN_ AWESOME that there was no other way release all that (let's be honest, demonic) "awesomeness".

All this is to say that this is one very well-made and often "hot" film.  I just hope that NO ONE really follows their example.  And my sense is that most who would be stupid enough to do so, will end up (quite quickly) in jail ...

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Song of the Sea [2014]

MPAA (PG)  ChiTribune/LA Times (4 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars) (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune/LA Times (K. Turan) review (S. Abrams) review
Slant (C. Lund) review

Screen Comment (P-C. Ho) review coverage coverage coverage

Song of the Sea [2014] (directed and cowritten by Tomm Moore [en.wikip] [IMDb] along with Will Collins) is a lovely if often somber Irish animated feature that first caught many people's attention when it edged out The Lego Movie [2014] for a nomination for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year.  Why?  Well, stylistically IT DESERVED IT ! ;-).

The story which leans heavily on Irish Celtic mythology is beautifully portrayed with hand-drawn water-colors that often _melt_ from scene to scene.  There is thus a gentleness to the imagery that computer generated animated films presently generally don't achieve.  Indeed, the film appears (quite successfully) to adapt the animation style of Japan's famed Studio Ghibli to Irish themes.  

Yet aside from being both beautiful and "different" from standard Hollywood fare, the choice of using water color drawings as the means to tell the story is also quite fitting as it is set in "quite rainy Ireland" (interestingly, it rains quite a bit in Japan as well...) and then "by the Sea."  Further, the story is largely about a selkie a Norse/Celtic mythological creature which on land can take the form of a human but in the sea becomes a seal (One could perhaps think of a selkie as a kind of Norse/Celtic mermaid).

One could think of the film as a kind of Irish Spirited Away (orig. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) [2001] (if one knows of / likes Studio Ghibli's films).

The current story concerns Ben (voiced by David Rawle), a little boy growing-up with his parents (voiced by Brendan Gleeson and Lisa Hannigan) in a remote part of Ireland by edge of the sea.  Indeed, his father is a lighthouse operator, and there, in the lighthouse, is where they live.  At the beginning of the story, Ben's mother "is expecting" another child.   Going into labor as she finishes telling a then 3-4-5 yr old Ben a bed-time story and sensing that this child was going to be different than Ben, she apologizes and somewhat inexplicably runs off toward the sea.

Needless to say Ben didn't understand nor did his father.  Ben's father, his name is Conor, runs after his wife, and then swims after her as she enters the ocean.  But in the end, all that he recovers is a new baby, a girl, who he names Saoirse (voiced later by Lucy O'Connell).

What the heck happened?  Well Ben and his father don't understand either and it appears to both that Ben's mother / Conor's wife had at minimum died during childbirth and _perhaps_ had even tried to kill herself.

This, of course, has "some lasting effects."  So five years later, Conor's mother, Ben and Saoirse's grandmother (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) comes visiting to the their lighthouse, and she's had enough.  Conor's still not over his wife's death, little Saoirse is still not talking and 8-10 year-old Ben appears quite distraught and confused as well.   He's lost his mother, his dad is _still_ "out of it" and he's an 8-10 year-old "older brother" trying to fulfill his mother's wishes to "take care of his sister." But HE'S ONLY 8-10 YEARS OLD!  So Granny decides she's going to take her grandchildren "back to the city" where "they could have a decent life."

But when she does that ... besides (or as a result of) the trauma of taking them away from their dad (and they've already lost their mom), Saoirse starts to fall ill.  Why?  Well that's the rest of the story ;-)

It all makes for a rather "sad Irish tale" but it is beautifully drawn and can perhaps help kids who've experienced some tragedy in their lives to not feel "alone" or otherwise "different" as a result.

It's a sad but gentle story, with a pacing that again more resembles Japan's Studio Ghibli than Warner Bros. "Bugs Bunny" / "Looney Tunes" but IMHO it's CERTAINLY worth the view ;-)

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Monday, February 23, 2015

87th Academy Awards [2015] - Diversity in the Air (after all)?

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

From the moment that the Nominations for the 87th Academy Awards [2015] were an-nounced, they were immediately de-nounced for a lack of diversity.

Personally, I found the accusation NOT entirely unfounded.  There were a good number of quite excellent African American oriented movies released this year BESIDES the Martin Luther King, Jr inspired Selma [2014].  One thinks of Belle [2014], Beyond the Lights [2014] and my personal favorite Repentance [2014].  And yet the only Selma [2014] received any recognition at all by the Academy with nominations for Best Picture itself (but NOT for best actor, best screenplay or best director) and then for ... Best Original Song (a good song -- indeed IT turned out to win _that_ Oscar ..., BUT ...).

On the other hand, I DIDN'T find the accusation entirely fair either: 

First, by her own words, director Ava DuVernay did approach the subject matter of Selma [2014] in a deliberately (more) provocative rather than "mainstream" sort of a way ... and that decision did prove to have consequences.  Honestly, "that's art."   Art that provokes will also (almost inevitably) put-off (some).  

Second, while I agree this is a lousy "the Academy's hands were tied" sort of an excuse, but ... while David Oyelowo could feel somewhat legitimately robbed for not having received an Oscar Nomination for his playing MLK in Selma, on the flip side of question, I do think that EVERYONE of the FIVE nominees in the Best Actor category legitimately deserved his nomination.  In fact, as I noted in My 2015 Oscar Picks article THIS WAS AN EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD YEAR when it came to quality American / English Language cinema.  A LOT OF THE AWARDS CATEGORIES had 3-4-even-all-5 legitimately WIN DESERVING Nominees.

In fact, IMHO the weakest of the 5 nominees for Best Actor in a Leading Role was Eddie Redmayne who ended up WINNING the Oscar for his performance as Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything [2104] (and yet, I don't want to begrudge either his nomination or even his win.  I wrote in My 2015 Oscar Picks article that _every single one_ of the five nominees in this category deserved their nomination, and that _every single one of them_ would have "earned the win" had they won.  Yet, I ALSO wrote that I do believe that there were several actors who legitimately deserved to be nominated as well and weren't.  (That's HOW GOOD THE CROP WAS _THIS YEAR_).

So a kind note to the Academy: Consider doing with ALL the major categories what the Academy already does with the Best Picture category - allow more than 5, perhaps "up to 8," or "up to 10" Nominees in "banner years" so that all those deserving a Nomination get one.  This way David Oyelowo would have certainly gotten a Nomination for his Lead Performance as MLK in Selma [2014], as would have Jake Gyllenhaal for his Lead Role Nightcrawler [2014]Gugu Mbatha-Raw would have would have a Nomination for her Lead Roles in either Belle [2014] or Beyond the Lights [2014], Clint Eastwood (!) would have certainly gotten a Best Director's nomination for his masterful work with American Sniper [2014] and Gillian Flynn [IMDb] would have gotten a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (!) for Gone Girl [2014].

Finally IMHO the loud and early complaint about Diversity did have an (again IMHO) fascinatingly positive effect on BOTH how the subsequent voting and then the actual Awards Ceremony played out:

The first words of the program's Host, Neil Patrick Harris, acknowledged the controversy: "Today we honor the best and whitest ... er brightest ... in Hollywood" ;-).

Then the acceptance speeches of pretty much all of the winners of the major categories were about as "activist" as I can remember: Patricia Arquette winning best the Supporting Actress prize for her role in Boyhood [2014] tee-ed up and flatly demanded Equal Pay for Equal Work for women (Good for you!  And to ANYONE who's ever had a mother, sister, wife, daughter or niece, that is EVERYBODY, this would seem self-evident, NOW).  Graham Moore, who got the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game [2014], made a plea on behalf of all those who "consider themselves weird" (those who are Gay but also NOT JUST Gay) noting that as a teenager HE NEARLY KILLED HIMSELF (Wow!  Honestly WHAT A TRAGEDY THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN!!  Look at what he's achieved in his life now and WHAT HE'S OFFERED TO OTHERS!).  Eddie Redmayne, made an appeal on behalf of all those who suffer from ALS; Julianne Moore who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Still Alice [2014] made an appeal on behalf of those who suffer from Alzheimer's.  FINALLY, Alejandro González Iñárritu whose film Birdman [2014] won FOUR major Oscars - Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director -- the last two going directly to him, noted amusingly: "HEY, I'M MEXICAN" ;-).  This may not have been a great year for African American actors and directors, but clearly it was a remarkable one for that HISPANIC director.  (And HE then proceeded to make an appeal for better appreciation of the gifts that Hispanic immigrants like him give to the United States, a nation that's always been "of immigrants.")  And even the Oscar for Best Animated Feature went to Disney's Big Hero 6 [2014] which sought to blend "the best of" Pixar, Marvel Comics and even Japan's Studio Ghibli.  So there was actually a surprising amount of diversity in the awards and even passion / activism in number of the acceptance speeches.

Again, if the flagship African American film this year, Selma [2014], hadn't been (perhaps) needlessly provocative when it came to then U.S. President Johnson (his role could have been simply downplayed rather than made arguably into an enemy of the Civil Rights movement...) perhaps the nominations could have come out differently.  But Hollywood / the Academy could ALSO have considered OTHER excellent WORTHY-OF-CONSIDERATION African American oriented films like Repentance [2014], Belle [2014] and Beyond the Lights [2014] rather than SIMPLY focus on the "Civil Rights Icon" film Selma [2014] (and then blame the director when they didn't like her take / message).  Perhaps next year will be better... we can only hope ;-).

What then of the Oscar ceremony itself?  Well, IMHO Neil Patrick Harris, this year's host, did a decent enough job. (Of the five Oscar Ceremonies [2011-2015] that I've reviewed since starting my blog, my favorite host Seth McFarlane who hosted the 2013 Program).  In the current program, Harris was quite good.  Except for his "Oscar Predictions" bit to which he came back OVER-AND-OVER-AGAIN throughout the program (and proved in the end to be a "dud"), he kept the show moving.  Again, I do believe that HE BEGAN THE SHOW PERFECTLY by immediately confronting the diversity question IN THE OPENING LINE OF HIS INITIAL WELCOME / MONOLOGUE.  And then some of the gags, like walking out on stage at one point in just his underwear (as Michael Keaton's character found himself having to do in Bird Man), were quite funny.

Among the acts, Lady Gaga [IMDb] proved (again) that she is legitimately a world class singing talent by singing and _nailing_ a medley homage to Sound of Music [1965] (the fiftieth anniversary of its release is this year).   On one hand, these are "songs that everybody knows."  On the other hand, THAT WAS EXACTLY THE POINT / RISK HERE -- JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY WATCHING THE SHOW KNEW THESE SONGS and if she "played with them" inappropriately or otherwise MESSED-UP that would be _all_ that we'd be talking about now.  Instead, she NAILED them and made it quite easy then for Julie Andrews to come-out on stage to take her bow, to salute her (Lady Gaga), and then present the Award for Best Original Song.

So over all, I do think that this was a decent enough Academy Awards season / presentation.  I do hope that in coming years, the Academy (1) becomes more flexible in the number of final nominees it
considered for the major categories (as it already does for Best Picture), and (2) it "dig a little deeper" when considering films from a number of our nation's subcultures.  Again, Selma [2014] wasn't _the only_ "worthy of consideration" African American oriented film made this year.

But let me end by underlining the positive this year:  IMHO there really were an exceptionally high number of "Oscar Worthy" films and performances this year.  And that is something for Hollywood to be proud of.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

The DUFF [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

The DUFF [2015] (directed by Ari Sangel, screenplay by Josh A. Cagan, based on the teenage novel [GW] [WCat] [Amzn] by Kody Keplinger [GW] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a teen-oriented film that begins bravely with the film's heroine Bianca (played wonderfully throughout by Mae Whitman) paying homage to the archetypes of John Hughes [wikip] [IMDb] classic The Breakfast Club [1985] only noting that "times have changed: Jocks now play video games, Princesses take anti-depressants and Geeks have pretty much come to rule the world." 

So what does the film do?  It introduces us to a new label / archetype: the DUFF - the Designated Ugly / Fat Friend, whose role in a group is to (1) make the others in the group feel more attractive and (2) be "the approachable one" by others outside the group seeking to "make contact" with those more attractive members of the group.

Yes, this is a rather cynical / hurtful label but then teenage life is often filled with interpersonal pain and the label / archetype kinda fits at times.  After all, people kinda attracted to someone often go through friends of that someone to feel things out "Does he/she kinda like me too?  What does he/she like to do?  Do I have a chance?" and so forth ...

Anyway, our poor "every girl" heroine is informed by a not particularly bright but very good looking neighbor-friend Wesley (played again wonderfully by Robbie Amell) that she's basically been "the DUFF" for her two perhaps somewhat more attractive friends Cassie (played Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (played by Skylar Samuels).  He doesn't mean to hurt Bianca with this matter-of-fact news, he just thinks he's making a statement of fact -- "that's how life is" -- but it proves to be crushing to her.  After all (1) Cassie, Jess and her have been BFFs forever ;-), and (2) yes Cassie and Jess were _somewhat_ prettier than she was.  Until then, she didn't make anything of it.  SUDDENLY "everything made sense" ... OH DEAR ...

So ... out of the blue, Bianca dumps her two best friends and THEY honestly DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY.  But that's what she wants.  So eyes mutually rolling in anger and confusion, Bianca and her two BEST FRIENDS proceed to "unfriend," "unfollow," "block" and otherwise "delete" each other from SOMETHING LIKE A DOZEN social networking platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc -- proving perhaps that in our socially interconnected world, "Breaking-up is now REALLY HARD to do." ;-)

What now?   It's really hard to "not be a DUFF" (to not be _perhaps_ "used" by someone in some way).  And it's pretty lonely.

Anyway, Bianca enlists her attractive (but again not altogether bright) neighbor friend Wesley to help her to be less "DUFF material."  But even as he tries to make her, well, more "independently hot" ... in a world where EVERY TEENAGER has a smart phone, one of the school's "Mean Girls" (another teenage archetype from another movie...) catches her doing something really embarrassing.  Bianca's "social transgression" was nothing offensive, but yes, NOT SOMETHING SHE'D WANT "POSTED OUT THERE" ... So once that "Mean Girl" puts the captured video of her rather stupid (if totally innocent) action on the internet, she finds herself humiliated before almost everyone that she's ever known.  OH to be "merely a DUFF" again ...

Much then still proceeds, and since this is a Hollywood movie intended to be a comedy (mild SPOILER ALERT) it "all turns out well."

Among the more positive things that happen in the film is that Bianca does reconcile again with her two BFFs, who never really understood why she was dumping them as friends to begin with.  Okay, sure they may have been _slightly_ more "attractive" than she was, but THEY sincerely couldn't imagine life without her being part of their group as well.  How could they possibly continue to be "the three musketeers" with only two? ;-)  WHAT A GREAT MESSAGE ABOUT FRIENDSHIP!

Anyway, today's teens will probably love this movie.  And certainly the "cyber bullying" incident described above is sobering (I myself would HATE to be a teenager going through that today...).

Overall, while I do wonder if this film will age as well as The Breakfast Club [1985] did, I do believe that it is a reasonably worthy successor film of its kind.  So teens (and perhaps even your parents) enjoy ;-)

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McFarland, USA [2015]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

Telemundo coverage*
Univision coverage* coverage* (J.L. Rois) review

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (G. Hassenger) review

McFarland, USA [2015] (directed by Niki Caro, screenplay by Grant Thompson, story by Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilios) is a remarkable and true, inspirational story about how a team of "the sons of pickers" from a largely Hispanic, California Central (San Joaquin) Valley town, McFarland, CA, largely "off the map" of California's / American consciousness, "jogged into town" and, well, "RAN AWAY" with CALIFORNIA'S first ever High School All State Cross Country Championship (in 1987) thus beginning A DYNASTY of State Championship winning Cross Country Teams (9 state championships in 14 years) from this previously INVISIBLE town.   

And when I say "invisible," please understand folks that I lived in Los Angeles for 7-8 years, actually during the same years when McFarland's Cross Country team began winning all those championships.  I found myself chuckling in recognition during the film when it portrayed many of the residents of McFarland as characterizing "nearby" BAKERSFIELD as "the town where all the (local) rich(er) people lived."  BAKERSFIELD ;-) ... To Los Angelinos at the time Bakersfield was itself "at the edge of the world" known, above all, as "the last stop on the Interstate before 2-3 hours of Desert on the way to Las Vegas" ;-). 

So this is a GREAT STORY about a team of high school kids from a town as "invisible" as it gets in California (and yet so much of the food that ends up on our tables is grown and PICKED by the residents of towns like McFarland) but who were still able to make their mark ... by winning all those championships.

How come?  Well, in the story, Jim White (played by Kevin Costner) --  yes, his name really was "White" (or "Sr. Blanco" as some of the residents started to call him ;-) -- a transplanted high school teacher / football coach with "some history of previous anger issues" (hence why he found himself needing to take a job in McFarland, CA ...) quickly found that while the kids at his school were simply NOT built for football they seemed almost ideally suited for running.

Why?  Well, the kids ROUTINELY spent a good part of their day-to-day life RUNNING ... running TO THE FIELDS _at the break of dawn_ to help their parents FOR A COUPLE OF HOURS with picking BEFORE SCHOOL, RUNNING then FROM THE FIELDS TO SCHOOL before classes started, and RUNNING then BACK TO THE FIELDS to help with work again AFTER SCHOOL.  They ran like this, EVERY DAY, OFTEN SCORCHING DESERT HEAT.  Nowhere short of California's Central Valley or perhaps in Ethiopia or the Middle East could have someone come up with a more demanding Cross Country training program than the one ALREADY LIVED _EVERY DAY_ by the students from this otherwise utterly average high school.

So the kids were naturals for this sport.  But how to convince the kids / parents that it's worth it to pursue organizing a cross country (and presumably track) team for a high school in a town about which EVERYBODY IN THE TOWN was convinced that nobody "outside" cared?

A parent, Sr. Diaz (played by Omar Leyva) who had three high school aged sons -- David (played by Rafael Martinez), Damacio (played by Michael Aguero) and Danny (played by Ramiro Rodriguez) -- kindly but tellingly tells Sr. White that "every hour that you have my sons training for you after school is an hour less that my kids help me put food on our table."  

Then too "Coach White" didn't come to McFarland alone.  He came with his wife (played by Maria Bello) and two daughters -- Julie (played by Morgan Saylor) who was TURNING FIFTEEN and 10 or so year old Jamie (played by Elsie Fisher) -- all blonde haired / blue eyed and originally from Idaho, who had their own adjustments to make.  When "the Whites" first arrived in town, named McFarland though it was, seeing all the Mexican flags, Spanish language signs and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere, bewildered, 10 year old Jamie quite honestly asked her parents, "Are we in Mexico?"

But they all did find their way to adjust and quite quickly.  That Jamie was turning 15, of course, gave the film-makers the opportunity to have the family, with help of their new neighbors/friends, throw her a quinceañera.  And her escort became the cute boy, Tomas Valles (played by Carlos Pratts), who was becoming the star of the budding new Cross Country team.

It all makes for a lovely story and what is even nicer is that it's largely true.  Perhaps most impressive of all is that while all seven of members of the original 1987 State Championship winning team ended up going to various colleges / universities afterwards (a virtually unimagined possibility prior to their beginning to run on the team) almost all of them returned back to McFarland after earning their degrees to play significant roles in the community afterwards (as teachers, detectives for the police department, etc).

The film itself gives visibility to a large cast of largely Hispanic actors including those named above.  One hopes that we will be seeing more of them in Hollywood films in the future.

So this is a win all around, and if it does cause a few people in the years to come to "take an Exit at Bakersfield" and then a detour to McFarland on their way to Vegas to see perhaps the school or otherwise the town where this remarkable cross-country / distance running dynasty was born, then that would be great as well.

So good job folks!  Good job!

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

My 2015 Oscars Picks

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

Diversity questions have certainly been asked with regards to the Oscar nominations this year (and the reader will see below that there are several African American / non-White candidates that IMHO would have been worthy of nominations).

HOWEVER, this year the Oscar competition is really quite fascinating because while I could certainly add an actor/actress/movie or two to several of the nomination categories (why not make the list of nominees "up to 10" in all the major categories?), _a lot_ of the competitions -- Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay (both Original and Adapted) -- are IMHO essentially tossups.  This was a very good year for excellence in American / English language cinema!

As in previous years, I've already offered up my own list ("Denny Awards" as it were ;-) for what I believe were the most compelling films and performances (male and female) among those that I saw in the past year.

But this here would be my take on the 2015 Oscars

     WILL WIN - J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
     SHOULD WIN - J.K. Simmons in Whiplash or perhaps Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Forest Whitaker in Repentance.

     WILL WIN - Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
     SHOULD WIN - Laura Dern in Wild
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Bharati Achrekar as "auntie" in The Lunchbox (orig. Dabba) ;-)

     WILL WIN - Michael Keaton in Birdman, but IMHO this category this year is a complete tossup
     SHOULD WIN - ANY of the 5 nominees + Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler or Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel (this was a year of A LOT of  remarkable leading role performances)
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Brendan Gleeson in Calvary,  Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kevin Kline in My Old Lady, Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox (orig. Dabba) and even Geová Manoel dos Santos in August Winds (orig. Ventos de Agosto) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

     WILL WIN - Julianne Moore in Still Alice
     SHOULD WIN - AGAIN A TOSS UP.  Of the nominees, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Rosalind Pike in Gone Girl and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything are most deserving of a win but even Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights had an Oscar worthy performance.
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Gugu Mbatha-Raw in both Belle AND Beyond the Lights, Keira Knightly in Begin Again

     WILL WIN - Boyhood
     SHOULD WIN - Of the nominated Birdman, Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel are IMHO most deserving of the win, but then I'd also add Babadook, Repentance or Calvary
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Babadook, Repentance, Calvary, Belle, Begin Again, The Lunchbox (orig. Dabba), August Winds (orig. Ventos de Agosto)

     WILL WIN - The Theory of Everything
     SHOULD WIN - Gone Girl (! - how did THIS film NOT get nomimated in THIS category!) 
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - A Most Wanted Man, My Old Lady

     WILL WIN - Birdman
     SHOULD WIN - Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel or then also Repentance, Calvary, Nightcrawler, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (!)
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Miss Christina (orig. Domnisoara Christina), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Repentance, Calvary

     WILL WIN - Richard Linklater for Boyhood
     SHOULD WIN - Again basically a tossup.  Of the nominated Richard Linklater for Boyhood, Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman are IMHO most deserving of a win, but then also Clint Eastwood for American Sniper made a masterful film that could have easily earned him an Oscar in this category as well.  
      DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Clint Eastwood for American Sniper
     WILL WIN - Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel or Birdman IMHO any of these could win
     SHOULD WIN - The Grand Budapest Hotel (in a very good field, IMHO it's simply "the greatest of them all" ;-)
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Repentance, Calvary, Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, Begin Again

 Again, there were some remarkably good films made this year!

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Manuscripts Don't Burn (orig. Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoosand) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Chicago Tribune (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing listing listing listing*

Chicago Tribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review

Manuscripts Don't Burn (orig. Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoosand) [2013] [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]* (written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof [en.wikip] [IMDb] [IMV] [SC]*) is a remarkable IRANIAN DISSIDENT FILM that played recently at the 25th Annual Festival of Films from Iran held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (SERIOUSLY THIS A TRULY REMARKABLE ANNUAL FESTIVAL PUT ON by the GSFC with some very, very, very good advice!  My hat honestly off to you!)

The film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it FEPRIZI (Int'l Critics) Prize and it's available (w. English Subtitles) for streaming via the Amazon Instant Video service.

Though fictionalized, it's based on the true experiences of Iran's dissident writer community.  So provocative was the film's content that aside from the writer/director NONE of the actors, editors or crew were credited in the film.

So what's the film about.  It's based on "an incident" (fictional(ized)?) that took place some time in the late 1990s in which a busload of 21 Iranian dissident intellectuals heading (presumably from Tehran) to a conference (somewhere "North") organized "by an Armenian organization" was nearly driven off a mountain road into a ravine by a bus driver who turned out to be an agent of the Iranian secret police.

"How could such a 'fantastic incident' ever have taken place?" asks, sarcastically, an incredulous Iranian government censor / police official mocking an Iranian dissident writer who had chosen to write about the incident, 20 years later, in his memoirs.

"We couldn't believe it either EVEN AS IT WAS HAPPENING," answers the aging writer.

The film then shows the writer explaining in his memoir that the bus driver actually tried to run the bus off the road TWICE even as the dissident writers on-board simply could not believe that the driver had already tried to kill them all the first time though that was obviously the case.  After all, NO ONE "falling asleep at the wheel" would _also_ jump out of the bus at the same time (!).  Yet that what the driver did (jump out of the bus) even though he gave the passengers the excuse (that he momentarily fell asleep at the wheel) when the bus didn't fall off the road ... Yet, so incredible / frightening seemed the incident that the intellectuals believed the bus driver the first time...

Well needless to say, the government censor/official confiscates the manuscript of the Iranian dissident's memoirs to which the writer responds, "I made two other copies of the manuscript and gave them to friends for safekeeping.   If something untoward happens to me, it will get published."

The rest of the film is then, of course, a search for the other two manuscripts...

Now a question could be asked why didn't the Iranian writer just publish the manuscript _online_ (or give a digital copy of it to someone) when he had the chance?

That's a very interesting question ... and a good part of the film involves exploring motivations for why he didn't.  

PART of his motivation (and this is therefore only PARTLY a SPOILER) was that he was using the manuscript as pressure to try to force the government to allow him to just leave the country.  But there's more to the question than that, and it's kinda interesting.

In any case, the film is an EXCELLENT REMINDER (if one ever needed one) that IRAN IS NOT FREE and what Iran's intellectuals go through as they try to be HONEST WITH THEMSELVES in a country whose paranoid regime would really prefer that they just shut-up and if they CAN'T / WON'T shut-up on their own, SHUTS THEM UP - even by torturing them / putting a bullet or two in their heads - ITSELF.

Great film!

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Cube of Sugar (orig. Ye Habe Grand) [2011]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)   Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing listing listing listing*

TakeOneCFF (M. O'Brien) review
Variety (R. Scheib) review

A Cube of Sugar (orig. Ye Habe Grand) [2011] [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]* (directed and co-written by Reza Mirkarimi [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]* along with Mohammad Reza Gohari [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]*), set in a random provincial town in contemporary Iran, is a lovely / gentle film about preparations for a wedding for a BELOVED (if perhaps previously somewhat taken for granted) daughter/niece/sister/aunt of a fairly large Iranian family who had "grown up" (without anybody particularly noticing...) and was now _finally_ getting married.

Director Reza Mirkarimi's [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]* most recent film Today (orig. Emrouz) [2014] IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]* played recently at the 25th Annual Festival of Films from Iran at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.  Since neither of that film's two screenings at the Festival proved particularly convenient for me, I decided to view / review one (or two) of his previous films instead.

These previous films can be found both LEGITIMATELY and, even better, FOR FREE on the IMVBox website which is something of a database for contemporary Iranian films. One does need to create an free account but it is truly free with no creepy/crooked requests for credit card, bank or other identity / financial information.  All one has to put up with is the film pausing every 20-30 minutes-or-so for "15-30 second commercial breaks" ;-).

So in lieu of the film that played at the festival (and perhaps will become available online later) I've decided to view / review this one instead.

Why bother at all?  As I've written elsewhere before, I do so honestly for the sake of "better comprehension among peoples," yes, quite seriously "for the cause of world peace."

I do believe that famed film critic Roger Ebert [en.wikip] (a lifelong Midwesterner/Chicagoan) was absolutely right when he called cinema "an empathy machine," noting that whenever we go to the movies we are invited to enter into the world of a different person, time, place, class, gender or race.  I also believe that while travel (and then in a meaningful way -- learning the language, spending some time there to truly learn / experience the culture) is prohibitively expensive / time consuming for the vast majority of people, for the price of a movie, we can, if the film is done well, enter into the world of the film-maker for 2-3 hours and learn a few things about that person's culture / manner of being that we probably never be able to do otherwise.

And honestly for all the foreign policy / political problems we in the West have had with Iran over the past decades (and both sides have their sides of the story), IT WAS A JOY TO VIEW / REVIEW THIS FILM ;-)

As introduced, the film's about the preparations for a wedding.  The bride, named Pasandide (played wonderfully by Negar Javaherian [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]*), while Iranian from a small/random provincial town there, is one that almost all of us would probably know.

The youngest daughter of a fairly large family, she appears to have been "a good girl" who the family both clearly loved and had also at least partly taken for granted.  As she "grew up" (without anybody particularly noticing...) she became the principal caregiver for the older folks in the family, that is, for her mother (played by Soheyla Razavi [IMDb] [IMV] [SC]*) as well as her uncle (played by Saeed Poursamimi [IMDb] [IMV] [SC]*) and aunt (played by Shamsi Fazlollahi [IMDb] [IMV] [SC]*).  She herself had clearly become a _beloved aunt_ to her various nieces and nephews.  But what then about her own happiness?

Well, she was (perhaps finally) getting married.  To whom?  Apparently to someone who both she and the family had known when she was growing up but who along with his family had "emigrated to the West" when he was just a child.  So one gets the sense that this was at least partly "an arranged marriage."  Further since she was getting married to someone who had emigrated, hers was going to be something of a controversial marriage.  People were going "to talk" a bit.  And yet this was Pasandide, the youngest, BELOVED, sister / daughter / niece of her generation in her family, and she was _finally_ getting married!  SO THE WHOLE FAMILY, the religious, the not particularly religious (one of the cousins comes with a TV which he sets up in the shed to "not miss the game" ;-), the stern, the clowns, the cute as a button nieces, the nephews, EVERYBODY, was coming to the wedding.  HONESTLY, HOW NICE!

And yes, some of her sisters and cousins, even kinda envied her.  Her sister tells her: "Hey, you're gonna be lucky.  When your husband acts up, you're gonna be able to call the police, and they're gonna listen to you ..."

And yet, in the midst of the celebrations and preparations a tragedy strikes.  What to do now?  Does one go on with the wedding (and more to the point, with one's own aspirations / plans) or does one accept things as "meant to be?"

THIS IS AN EXCELLENT, SIMPLY EXCELLENT MOVIE ... and one in which pretty much ALL OF US will know the characters ...

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (J. Hessenger) review

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them [2014] (written and directed by Ned Benson) is a gleefully convoluted tragedy / romance that could perhaps put some weary smiles on faces who don't necessarily have a lot to do this Valentine's Day. 

This is because the film was initially conceived as a pair of films each telling the film's story from the perspective of one of the two lead characters -- Eleanor Rigby (played by Jessica Chastain) and her partner/husband Coner Ludlow (played by James McAvoy). 

To quickly answer the obvious question, yes, Eleanor's parents in the film -- the Bohemian, formally Parisian, and still French accented Marie (played by Isabelle Huppert) and the Professorial (he is indeed is a Psych professor) Julian Rigby (played by William Hurt) -- did name her after the famous (and rather sad) Beatles song [YoutTube].  On the other side of the coin, the song doesn't necessarily inform much with regards to the film's story (other than that the film's story is also often rather sad).  Perhaps it's just a reminder to us that sometimes people do rather stupid or random things like name their kids after characters in stories or songs that _may_ then at least partly condemn them to live-out the story of the character depicted in the story / song.

Anyway, the original conception of this film project was to produce two parallel films that would would depict the same story (a rather sad one actually) from the perspective of two different characters.  There were originally His / Hers versions of the film.  When film was bought after the Toronto Film Festival in 2013, the production company that bought it decided that since the films repeated many of the same events in the story, that it would prefer that a single tale, a "Them" version, be released instead.  That's the version that's available on Amazon Instant Video (and reviewed here ;-).  I would suspect that the DVD would offer all three versions ;-).

Alright so what's the story about? 

Well, we meet the two lead characters, Eleanor and Conor, both in their early 3os, both clearly in love, in some New York restaurant.  And in the next scene, we see Eleanor riding her bike on the Brooklyn Bridge on one sunny day, stopping, leaning her bike against the fence, walking about 30 feet further from the bike and (apparently) climbing over the fence and jumping (we hear the splash).  The next shot we see is her being recovered (she did survive) by NYPD and taken to a hospital. 

What the heck happened?  Well, I'm not going to tell you ;-).  What I am going to tell you is that the story, progressively revealed does reveal a tragedy that could lead a thirty something woman to try to commit suicide and, to the film's credit, the story does involve more than just the two lead characters.  For instance, both sets of parents, hers already mentioned above and his, or at least his dad, a restauranteur named Spencer Ludlow (played by Ciarán Hinds) are quite important in the story and developed characters as are also other friends, family and coworkers.  

So this is an intelligently told story and one that from its very structure (again there are THREE versions) invites viewers to enter into it.

Anyway if yourselves so disposed on weekend, it's not a bad interpersonal story / romance / and at least partly tragedy to look-up ;-).  And again at least the "Them" version is available for a reasonable price on Amazon Instant Video.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars)  ChicagoSunTimes (3 1/2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
ChicagoSuntimes (R. Roeper) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Kingsman: The Secret Service [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Matthew Vaughn along with Jane Goldman based on the graphic novel [GR] [Amzn] by Mark Millar [GR] [Amzn] [wikip] [IMDb] and Dave Gibbons [GR] [Amzn] [wikip] [IMDb]) is a film I did not expect to see.  I had found the trailer to be entirely too, "old time WASPish" even aggressively PRO-"old time WASPish" and then "on Steroids."  After all, the story promised to be about AN ORGANIZATION of OLD MONEYED / ARISTOCRATIC BRITS ACTING AS SUPERHEROES -- Jeez/Louise: imagine the "Downton Abbey" folks "IN MASKS / CAPES" :-).

Now don't get me wrong, I've liked, indeed even grown-up on James Bond (which the current film _repeatedly_ reminded viewers was a "gentleman spy" ... I had always considered him to be simply cool ;-).  I've also been able to accept (grudgingly) the American WASPish Bruce Wayne / Batman (who's always been my _least favorite_ of the popular American superheroes), and then the more redeemable Roosevelt-ine Xavier from the X-men.

BUT THE THOUGHT OF A WHOLE "GENTLEMEN'S CLUB" OF THESE PEOPLE????  Oh just what would we "little people" _ever_ be able to do without them? ;-)

Richard Roeper's review (link also given above) got me to see the film.  Paraphrasing, he called it an Austin Powers [2002] style send-up of the early James Bond films done in the style of Quentin Tarrantino's Kill Bill [2003].  I was intrigued ;-).

Having seen the film.  I can admit that the current film has its moments:

Samuel L. Jackson plays an inspired and appropriately crazy Bond-villain, a tech-mogul amusingly named Valentine (the film was released on Valentine's Day weekend ;-).

The film also _tries_ to soften the often insufferable Aristrocratic "Crust" of its "Kingsmen" premise by pitting an irredeemably "old school" / "snobbish" Arthur (played by Michael Caine) WHO HEADS the "Kingsmen" organization, against a more human, more open, more optimistic, indeed "more pure" Kingsmen AGENT named Harry Hart (played by Colin Firth) signaled also by his codename Galahad.  Hart / Galahad repeatedly appears to recruit "young people with potential" to the Kingsmen group, including the film's main / budding protagonist Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (played by Taron Egerton), while Arthur seems to always look for reasons for belittling and rejecting them.

But the film has its problems:

Consider simply that the film's "Bond Villain" is both BLACK and a "TECH MOGUL" (by definition NEW MONEYED).   And the Grand Plot that he's concocted is that he's gonna "solve Global Warming" by killing off a vast number of (generally poor) people.  It's basically the saw that "Liberals are more concerned about 'the Planet' than about PEOPLE."

But then the actual means that Valentine conceives for liquidating all those people is actually quite frightening and MAY keep fair a number of "Bilderberg Group" conspiracy theorists up at night afterwards ;-)

So what then to ultimately say about the film?  It is a largely inspired send-up of the old James Bond films.  All the main characters are quite well drawn, even if there are aspects of the story that I find unsettling, in particular that the film does seem to portray the Old as being basically Good and the New as being basically Bad.

That said, I do believe that this is a story that's "one heck of a ride." ;-)

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fish & Cat (orig. Mahi va Gorbeh) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  E4Film (3.5 Stars)  Slant (2 Stars)   Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing listing listing listing* (A. Robertson) review
Slant (S. McFarland) review

Fish & Cat (orig. Mahi va Gorbeh) [2013] [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]* (written and directed by Shahram Mokri [IMDb] [CIN] [IMV] [SC]*) is a rather strange / surrealistic (and intentionally so ;-) Iranian film that played recently at the 25th Annual Festival of Films from Iran at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.

Based on a true incident that occurred around a restaurant in the hinterlands of Western Iran in the late 1990s, an incident that would evoke a mix of anticipation / revulsion in the viewer reminiscent of the bloodletting / imagery of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974], after baiting the audience with such rather sordid expectations at the current story's very beginning, the film proceeds to _meander_ -- for 2 1/2 hours (!!) ;-) --  in its telling of the said and promised-to-be sordid story in a manner that amuses and frustrates audience and invites, repeatedly, the audience to reflect, in various ways, on the NATURE OF TIME ;-) -- Is it slow? Or is it, if perhaps after a time, in fact quite  quick and DECISIVE? Is it linear or cyclical?  And, as one awaits some kind of resolution (!), does one just give-up or care? ;-)

Adding to the amusement of the story-telling, the film was shot -- all 2 1/2 hours of it -- IN ONE CONTINUOUS TAKE ;-) -- on an overcast (largely featureless) day, along the shore of a random lake / reservoir, among a group of random, mostly young people, preparing for a random if perhaps beautiful (but also fleeting) activity -- a local / somewhat regional "kite festival."

Among those random and generally cheerful young people walk two rather strange middle-aged men, who own a random yet appropriately creepy "roadside restaurant" relatively "nearby."  Everyone in the audience, of course, knows what one or the other of these two, random, if rather strange-looking middle aged men are (eventually...) gonna do.  BUT WHEN?

And the director, perhaps in his 30s, smartly dressed, in black slacks and a black sports coat, with a nice smartly trim beard, BEAMED after the screening here at the Siskel Center, looking like a young Oliver Stone / Spielberg-like director who's gotten one over on the audience ;-), noting that a knocked-over box of pop-corn in one of the aisles suggested that at least one or two of the audience members had gotten-up and left in frustration / disgust ;-).   Mission accomplished ;-)  

What then was the point of the film?  Well, he said it was inspired by Aescher Prints where people seemed destined to walk around in circles and that yes, he saw the film as a fun, meandering, both linear and cyclical, exploration of time.

Honestly, this was one fun, if at times quite exasperating, film ;-) and it reminds the American / Western viewer of both the humor and sophistication of Iran's people and culture.  After all, as Iranians (whether they like the current regime or not ... and one would assume that many/most of those involved in this festival, curated and paid for by Iranian Exiles, do not) almost universally like to remind Westerners ... theirs is a culture that's "been around for 3000 years."

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Girlhood (orig. Bande de Filles) [2014]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13) (3 1/2 Stars)   Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Allociné.fr listing* (F. Mignard) review* (K. Moussou) review*
LaCroix (C. Renou-Nativel) review* (S. O'Malley) review
Slant Magazine (J. Latimer) review
Sound on Sight (J.R. Kinnard) review

Girlhood (orig. Bande de Filles) [2014] [IMDB] []* (written and directed by Céline Sciamma [IMDb] []*) which played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago, can make for a fascinating "opposite book end" to American director recent Richard Linklater's Boyhood [2014]:

Linklater, white, male / American, made a remarkable film focused on a boy, 8-18 y/o, American, white, growing-up middle/lower-middle class in "at the edge of the prairie" Texas.

In contrast, Sciama, still white but female / French, made a remarkable film that focuses on a girl, about 15-16 y/o, French, of West African descent, hence black, growing-up "in a project" (poor) "at the edge of the city" Paris.

Again, fascinating! ;-).

Both films were darlings of the 2014 Festival Circuit and both have received critical acclaim in their respective "home countries."  Linklater's film has been nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Sciamma's for 3 Lumiere Awards (France's equivalent of the Oscars) including Best Film, Best Director and Most Promising Young Actress.

In both cases, though perhaps for different reasons, the directors wished to primarily present their stories through vignettes.  Since Linklater's story was filmed (remarkably) over the span of 10 years the director didn't have much of a choice but tell the story through evocative vignettes (or else his would be a very long movie ;-).  In contrast, in Sciama's film, lead character Marieme's  horizons seemed so limited that what life / freedom / "victory" could be found could _only_ be found in sometimes quite _stolen_ "moments" / vignettes. 

With regard to this last point noting Marieme's limited socio-economic horizons, it would be worthwhile to recommend to American viewers another evocative American film that treads similar ground, though again through a mostly young male (if African American) perspective, the American gang classic Boyz n the Hood [1991], this in particular since the French title to Sciamma's current film is Bande de Filles or Gang of Girls.

So then, to the film ;-)

The film centered on Marieme (played remarkably by Karidja Touré [IMDb] []*) 15-16 y/o, of West African descent, living in the projects at the outskirts of Paris.  There was no father in the picture, and her mother (played by Binda Diop [IMDb] []*) mostly working, as a cleaning lady, was largely out of the picture as well.   Who "ruled the roost" at home was her older brother Djibril (played by Cyril Mendy [IMDb] []*) who dominated her and her 11-or-so y/o younger sister with violence and the threat of violence.  Indeed, "the grounds of the projects" seemed to be dominated by listless, generally unemployed, young men.  Outside there were "strangers." Inside there was the "abusive older brother" who perhaps afforded the girls _some_ "comfort" of being at least "the Devil that one knew" and being ... "Family."

So life, if it was to be found, was to be found outside _beyond the projects_.  But here horizons appeared to be shrinking for Marieme as well.  Her grades not being good, early in the film, she's counseled by her school's administrators to put herself "on a vocational track" because College was NOT going to be in the cards, NOT with her grades (or perhaps having at least partially compensatory monetary fortunes).

Well, one door closes and ... another (perhaps not the greatest) ... opens.   Perhaps shaken by what she was told at school, Marieme, decides (for the first time?) to give "the time of day" to three slightly older and certainly tougher-looking girls, led by "Lady" (played wonderfully by Assa Silla [IMDb] []*) standing by a vending machine _outside_ of school.

Initially it's a rather "awkward" encounter.  The three slightly older, certainly somewhat tougher girls are probably "of the type" that Marieme had been previously "warned about" by her older (abusive) brother and (absent) mother / family.  On the other side of the coin, "Lady," et al, certainly know that previously Marieme would not have given them, "fallen" / "dangerous" girls that they were, much consideration.  So ... some "negotiation" or even "reconciliation" has to take place.   But "Lady," et al probably knew that they too were "once like Marieme," and perhaps Marieme came to appreciate, perhaps more than before, that "Lady," et al probably came-to-be who-they-were as a result of a "once upon a time" conversation like she just had with her school's administrators.

So ... Marieme basically joins their "gang."  And for a good part of the movie, one naturally fears for her and even for some of the others in this "gang of four."

And there are moments that are quite scary and there are moments that are simply _heart-rending_, because these four girls are not "simply evil" or had somehow become "simply evil."  To a good extent they are still "young girls" who "if things were different ..." would also certainly be different:

The show stopping scene in the movie is when the four, dress-up in cheap hotel room somewhere (again "the projects" themselves were apparently considered unsafe by all of them) in clothes that they had obviously "lifted" (stolen) from some department store (the bulky "security clips" still hanging on them) and DANCE / LIPSINC-ING to the Rihanna song named "Diamonds."  Again, "if things were different ..." ... but of course they are not.  And it does make one want to cry ...

It all makes for a very, very interesting movie.  And there are more things going on. Miriam now going by the name "Vic" (for "Victoire / Victory") has, of course, her "Gang of Four."  But she ALSO has her (abusive) older brother and her younger sister (who looks up to her).  Further out, she does have her mother who does care for her but is just too far away too often to make a difference.  And then there is also a young guy in her project named Ismaël (played by Idrissa Diabaté [IMDb] []*)  who likes her (and she kinda likes as well) but ... and she asks him the question ... "what kind of a life would we have together?"  (He'd be unemployed and she'd be his housekeeper / wife?)

Again this is really, really good, thought provoking stuff ... and certainly worthy of the accolades that the film has received.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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