On Captain Fantastic

I’m usually one to let a movie simmer in my mind for at least a few hours before delivering an assessment of it. I like to hear others’ opinions and to have a few discussions about a film first, and only then do I decide upon its merits. But when my husband leaned over to ask what I thought as the credits rolled for Captain Fantastic, I was able to deliver the simple, precise review that I loved it. Captain Fantastic is, quite simply, one of the most satisfying dramas I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time.

My interest was initially piqued by a trailer showcasing the pristine wooded setting, an Oregon forest where Viggo Mortenson’s character Ben raises his six children completely off the grid, providing them with rigorous mental and physical “training.” Ben’s comprehensive version of unofficial homeschooling involves things as varied as Buddhist meditation, daily runs through the woods, a close reading of all the literary classics, hunting skills, a strong yoga practice, knowledge of how to set a broken bone, and the ability to carry on philosophical debate, just to name a few. The result is a vibrant, close-knit family unit, one whose members are highly educated critical thinkers, shunners of the capitalism and consumerism that define the mainstream culture they despise, and self-reliant outdoorsmen. The children not only subscribe to Ben’s way of raising them, they thrive under it, demonstrating mastery of high intellectual concepts and enviable physical prowess.

Writer-director Matt Ross introduces audiences to his characters with countless scenes of Ben and his children going through their typical daily routine. In fact, he devotes a large portion of the first act of the film to simply showcasing the utterly unconventional lifestyle of this family. But Ross’ arduous efforts never grow tiresome or boring. We see the children run through gorgeous, untouched forests; we bear witness to Bo, the oldest of Ben’s kids, kill his first deer, which his younger siblings then proceed to dismember; we watch as the children eagerly read classic novels and philosophical texts, delivering thoughtful opinions on them to their father; we view scenes of meditation circles, dinners made over a campfire, and jam sessions in which every family member fully contributes to the musical cacophony they collectively create. These scenes of family life feel absolutely idyllic, set against the background of the pristine Pacific Northwest wilderness and colored by the delightfully mismatched patchwork clothing worn by the family. It’s hard to resist the pull of the life that Ben has so carefully constructed for his children.

But at times, it almost feels as though Ross is trying to convince his audience that Ben has made a good choice in raising his children this way. The ideology which motivated Ben to forge such a path with his kids is made evidently clear from the way he constantly talks about modern society, government, and the like, to the way in which his children speak of various economic, religious, and political systems. And Ross takes advantage of every opportunity in which the plot allows Ben’s children to show off their smarts. Undoubtedly, the children’s degree of knowledge and intelligence surpasses that of most other children their age educated in traditional school settings, as well as that of many adults viewing the film too. While I certainly didn’t mind getting so many glimpses of this strange and wonderful world, Ross really didn’t have to try so hard to get me on his protagonist’s side; I was hooked on this lifestyle from pretty early on in the film. But once Ben’s parenting decisions are thrown into question, it becomes clear why Ross found it necessary to push them so heavily on us at the outset.

The real crux of the plot is centered around events related to the children’s mother Leslie which force them out of their woodland home. We understand that she was fully on board with the way that Ben is currently raising their children. And early on in the film, her absence is explained in a conversation that alludes to her residing in some sort of medical institution. In time, audiences come to find that her parents, particularly her father (winningly portrayed by Frank Langella), denied her agency in deciding to raise their grandchildren as she and her husband did. These frictions within the family, as well as those with the children’s aunt (played by Kathryn Hahn), uncle (portrayed by Steve Zahn), and cousins, are both opportunities to showcase the humorous way that living apart from society can lead to mishaps in social interaction and circumstances when big questions about how to balance one’s ideals with the demands of society, about how best to raise a child, and about what types of experiences are the most important ones to provide children are raised – and never clearly answered. It is when Ben is forced to take his family out of their paradisal home and into the wider world that these questions come to the forefront, leaving me with the type of ambivalence and uncertainty that only great stories can evoke.

These heavy questions, however, are tempered with brilliant moments of levity, many of them unexpected. It is this balance that makes the movie so compelling. Once the first third of the film documenting the daily life of Ben and company in the woods is through, the movie grows more dramatic and a bit darker. But the change in tone never feels jarring as Ross undercuts difficult scenes by following them up with hilarious moments ranging from a teenage son not understanding social conventions and references after receiving his first kiss to children breaking out into song as though they were traveling Christian evangelists to throw others off their scent. I found the humor in the movie surprising but well-placed, unusual but satisfying. Much of this is owed to Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben. Never one to take himself too seriously, nor afraid to show his true nature in front of his children, Ben often reacts to distressing situations with grace and a light temperament, endearing himself to audiences as a principled and loving, if unconventional, father. The film provides a portrait of parenthood that is ultimately appealing and enviable, despite Ben’s missteps and socially unacceptable decisions. Again, it’s all about balance, and Mortenson is able to find the sweet spot that makes his complicated character work.

While Mortenson’s performance supports the film immeasurably, I would be remiss not to give due credit to the young actors for their brilliant portrayals of his children. It’s pretty remarkable to see such strong performances across the board in a film with six young actors playing characters aged six to eighteen years old. Writer-director Ross also deserves a nod here too; in the space of 119 minutes, all six of the children were considerably well-developed characters, each with their own singular personalities, aptitudes, obstacles, and interests. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could easily develop a particular feel for each child’s storyline in under two hours of running time. The eldest son Bo, portrayed by George MacKay (who was also excellent in The Boys Are Back), struggles with relating to others outside his family unit, particularly females, and with deciding upon whether and where to attend college. Meanwhile the youngest daughter Zaja has many unanswered questions about sex that her father is not afraid to answer frankly, to Zaja’s horror and revulsion. Rellian, the second oldest son, has the most difficulty accepting his father’s decisions and, as a young adolescent, has just as much trouble figuring out how to channel that rage and confusion. Each child feels nuanced and real, a true feat given the size of this cast.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a real treat of a film, a continually surprising and constantly thought-provoking drama about family life unlike much of anything I’ve ever seen before. You’ll find yourself drawn into a remarkably enticing world, lured by compelling performances all around, only to later question all that you thought you believed. Ross’s ability to effortlessly twist the story, and viewers’ answers to the questions it raises, is a feat the likes of which I haven’t experienced in the theater for some time. I’m fascinated by every element of this film, from the actors’ performances to the writing and dialogue, from the gorgeous setting to the way Ross had me laughing and thinking hard and crying in such quick succession. This movie stands as a great example of independent filmmaking at its very best.

 

Advertisements

On Whiplash

Now that I’ve seen Whiplash, even if it is two months into the new year, I feel like I’ve finally seen 2014’s best film. It wasn’t always easy or enjoyable to watch the expectedly intense and surprisingly bloody film, but the performances and concluding fifteen minutes made the whole gory experience worth it.

The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a jazz drumming prodigy of sorts in his first year at the Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious New York City academy that Neiman repeatedly refers to as the country’s best music school. He is recruited for the studio band as an alternate by conductor Terence Fletcher, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons. The film profiles Neiman’s masochistic attempts to earn a core spot on the drums in Fletcher’s band, aiming to achieve his exacting conductor’s unrealistic expectations of musical perfection. But Fletcher is a difficult conductor to work with to say the least. His unwavering desire for excellence is equal only to his willingness to utilize any means, however dehumanizing or humiliating or dangerous, of procuring it. Fletcher rains verbal storms of homophobic abuse on his students, hurls chairs at Neiman’s head when he’s the slightest bit off tempo, and kicks musicians out of his band for being unable to determine if they are out of tune.

Through a serendipitous turn of fate, Neiman is promoted after accidentally losing the core drummer’s sheet music just minutes prior to the start of a jazz competition. Having memorized the piece from which the movie takes its title, “Whiplash,” Neiman is able to perform in the competition without the aid of sheet music, unlike the previous core drummer. But in Fletcher’s band, promotions are tenuous at best. Prior to the band’s next competition, Neiman finds himself fighting again for the coveted drummer position against two other hopefuls. After the three musicians cycle through the seat behind the drum kit over the course of nearly 12 hours, each in turn trying to match Fletcher’s desired tempo, the conductor finally grants the position to Neiman.

As unreasonable as Fletcher’s expectations are, however, Neiman’s desire to fulfill them proves equally irrational. This next anecdote from the film is a bit of a spoiler, but I found it one of the most telling scenes of the film. When his bus breaks down en route to the competition which he worked so tirelessly to perform in, Neiman rents a car to drive the rest of the way. Arriving only a few minutes after call time, Neiman realizes his drum sticks are sitting on a chair in the rental office. Racing back to perform after picking up his sticks, Neiman gets into a horrific accident, slammed on the driver’s side by an eighteen-wheeler. Neiman crawls out of his overturned, crushed car, blood dripping from his head, and runs the rest of the way to the auditorium. He gets to his seat behind the drums in the nick of time, and Fletcher allows his to stay.

The horror of Fletcher’s leadership methods is not lost on Shaffer Conservatory, but his means are almost justified to viewers in light of a parable Fletcher repeatedly shares about Charlie Parker. As the story goes, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at the young Charlie Parker after the latter musician made a mistake while the two were playing together. Rather than discouraging Parker, Jones’ violent response encouraged Parker to practice all the harder, leading him to become one of the music world’s greats. As Fletcher sees it, legendary players only realize their greatness under duress. If he doesn’t push students to their limits with such exacting force, they could miss out on becoming the next Charlie Parker. Neiman wants so badly to achieve the label of musical genius that he withstands Fletcher’s abuses, using them as fuel to practice obsessively, even breaking up with his girlfriend prematurely because he knows he will be too consumed with drumming to be a suitable partner. The whole film becomes an exploration of the Jones-Parker metaphor, raising questions about the morality of this story, causing viewers to equivocate on whether Fletcher’s methods are right or wrong.

Though the film is tense, at times painful, and shows little redemption to any of its cast, the ending is immensely satisfying without being either cheesy or too neat. Just when we viewers think maybe Fletcher has learned the errors of his ways, we find that he is exactly as unrelenting and resistant to change as we feared. And after we think all hope is lost for Neiman, he proves himself capable of breaking free from the shackles of his victimhood. The film culminates in a final musical sequence that is powerfully acted, brilliantly shot, and exceptionally emotional. It’s a rewarding payoff that makes all the pain and suffering along the way, for both Neiman and viewers, worthwhile.

But the performances themselves make even the most difficult scenes in Whiplash all the more tolerable. In lesser hands, the character of Terence Fletcher would have been played as a caricature, a drill sergeant-like conductor whose madness alienated audiences and whose essential humanity was impossible to discern. Simmons brings all the delicacy he can muster to his portrayal of a man defined by his intensity and violent force. When Fletcher fully explores the Charlie Parker metaphor in conversation with Neiman three quarters of the way into the film, we are finally able to understand him, to relate to him, to even forgive him for all the havoc he’s wreaked in the past hour and a half because we receive a glimpse of the logical, human side. Fletcher’s unconventional conducting methods are revealed as conscious choices made in service of the music, the ideal of perfection, and the possibility of molding just one young person into the next great legendary player. I can’t imagine anyone but J.K. Simmons pulling this feat off without making a mockery of Fletcher or playing the character to such an extreme that the film is completely unbearable. Simmons fully deserves every last accolade this film brought his way.

Miles Teller is also pretty remarkable, both for his performance as an actor and as a drummer. Apparently Teller played the drums prior to securing this role, but the degree of musical talent and training required to perform at the level required for this film would be hard for anyone to achieve, let alone a person who spent the majority of their life focused on becoming a career drummer. Beyond his musical performance, Teller plays Neiman, a character that is neither a conventionally likable protagonist nor a hero, in a arduously compelling way. In a rare scene away from the conservatory, Neiman is having dinner with his father (winningly portrayed by Paul Reiser) and some family friends. As his peers are esteemed for their mediocre academic and athletic achievements, Neiman fights to get recognition for earning a core spot in Fletcher’s band. When a disagreement ensues over whether music can be deemed subjectively perfect, your heart goes out to Teller as you realize that his only true place of belonging is under the tutelage of a cruel and exacting conductor.

Neiman is certainly misunderstood, and Teller strikes a delicate balance with his portrayal of both the relatable aspects of Neiman’s character and the exceptional. While we all can recognize the satisfaction of putting in hours of work to accomplish a specific aim, I doubt that many viewers fully identify with Neiman’s level of talent or singularity of focus, nor the drastic sacrifices he makes in service of them. When he breaks up with his new girlfriend to prevent the future heartbreak he foresees when drumming inevitably comes between them, you can’t help but feel a little respect for the guy. Neiman is wrong on so many levels; his delivery in this decision is abrupt and totally lacking in subtly, his reasoning is premature and extreme, his inability to concede his faults is frustrating. But Neiman also displays a commendable level of dedication to his goal, putting aside the typical concerns of a young adult male in service of a larger end. This scene typifies how Teller is so winning; the audience will forgive his irrational logic, even support it, as long as we ultimately get to see him succeed. I had my doubts about this guy after seeing his revolting performance in the unremarkable film The Spectacular Now, but Teller quickly proved his worth to me in the time it took to finish Whiplash.

The film is available now on Amazon, iTunes, and all those good other digital outlets.

On Obvious Child

Given that I’m married to a comedian, films about the art of stand up are more likely to cross my path than some other topics. But even movie-lovers completely unconnected to any of those masochistic souls that dream of earning a living by making others laugh will surely be fond of Jenny Slate’s endearing portrayal of amateur stand up Donna Stern in Obvious Child.

Hyped as “the abortion romantic-comedy,” I was initially surprised by how little I felt the movie actually dealt with abortion (my husband Mike, however, said the exact opposite). Protagonist Donna Stern is a struggling stand up comedian based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She works at a bookstore by day and spends most nights performing at a local bar. The film opens when Donna is brutally dumped in the grungy bathroom of said local bar by a guy who turns out to have been sleeping with her friend. Donna’s ego is badly damaged so she takes to drinking excessively as a means of coping.

One drunken night lays the plot-line for the remainder of the film. Donna meets Max, a nice, non-hipster guy who is clearly out of place at her regular Williamsburg haunt. The night ends in a one-night stand that also, incidentally enough, leaves Donna pregnant, and she decides unequivocally to have an abortion. It was refreshing to watch a film where the conflict was not whether to have an abortion, but rather, whether and how to break the news about it to Max (and I think this is why it didn’t feel as abortion-heavy as I expected – I imagined the central dilemma to revolve around her equivocating on the abortion thing).

Although abortion completely factors into the film, I found that this movie was more about the awkward, bumbling romance between two people from entirely different crowds. As Donna says on stage, she is the spitting image of Anne Frank. In private to her gay best friend, she describes Max as a Christmas tree because he is so obviously a good Christian boy. Her jokes at Max’s expense place him as a well-bred frat boy, a sharp contrast to her decidedly unladylike choice of language and penchant for fart jokes. Nevertheless viewers understand that Donna is attracted to Max in spite of their obvious surface-level differences.

Even more complicating is the fact that Donna plans to abort Max’s baby. She tries to avoid engaging in anything more than a one-night stand with Max because of this fact, only to have her plans foiled by circumstance and plain, old-fashioned attraction. This in itself is a great moral dilemma and a good conversation starter (for people with like-political-minds of course). Should she tell Max about the pregnancy? What about the abortion? How should she tell him? How much say should he have in the matter of getting an abortion? This highly entertaining film tricks you into thinking about some of these heavy issues while simultaneously making you both laugh and cringe at Donna’s social skills or complete lack thereof.

Jenny Slate is captivating in her portrayal of Donna. I find that sometimes the female comedian character is way overdrawn to the point of irritation. Thankfully Slate stops short of grating on your nerves. She portrays Donna as perky, complex, and quirky, but her performance is never dull, hackneyed, or annoying. Donna is flawed and she knows it, she’s a bit aimless and is okay with it, she’s hilarious even if in an unconventional way, and her stand up doesn’t fall on the standard tropes to which female comedy can frequently be prone. Sometimes you want to hold her back from embarking on a mistake, sometimes you want to give her a pep talk about doing the right thing, but mostly you just want to see how it all works out because you know she will land on her feet. Luckily, she has great friends and family, portrayed by Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, and Polly Draper, to help her with the first two.

Jake Lacy plays Max, the all-American, Christian boy. While it’s obvious from the start that he would not typically fit into Donna’s world, audiences can’t help rooting for him nonetheless. He tries to understand Donna but never attempts to change himself in an effort to align with a superficial characterization of Donna’s supposed “type.” Max proves to be a genuinely sweet character and I find Lacy an appealing fit for that role.

Certainly prepare yourself for some gross humor, R-rated language, and lots of skinny jeans before watching this one. It’s not exactly friendly for all types of families, but I watched this one with my parents and sister with little of the discomfort that often accompanies family viewings of movies intended for the same target audience. All in all, Obvious Child will leave you with the type of feel-good vibes people are in search of whenever they watch romantic comedies.

On Mistaken for Strangers

I’ve long been a fan of The National, the indie rock band easily identifiable by lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep vocals and by their uniquely cinematic music, increasingly popping up in films as the perfect score for heightening already-emotional moments. Although my husband has long claimed that The National’s music bores him, I convinced him to watch a recently released documentary about the band. Within 80 minutes, he was completely converted.

But the documentary, which shares its name Mistaken for Strangers with one of the band’s songs, isn’t your typical music documentary film. The whole project starts when The National needs a hand on their European tour. Lead singer Matt calls on his younger brother Tom, a metalhead and amateur filmmaker, to assist the five man group as a roadie. Tom takes the opportunity to also film the outfit, interviewing the various members about their experiences as a touring band of rising fame and capturing their stirring live performances.

It doesn’t take long until Tom’s initial aim of capturing The National on film becomes completely derailed. The content of his movie becomes much more personal, focusing upon the relationship he and his brother share, even routing his interviews with the other band members to their thoughts on Matt more than their experiences as members of the group itself. Once Tom is (deservedly and predictably) fired from the tour, audiences are left wondering where he can possibly take his film project without access to his brother’s band. Is this movie just going to leave us despising Matt Berninger for being unforgiving and harsh to his hilarious, earnest brother, even if he is a bit of a screw up? Are the Berninger brothers going to be able to overcome the professional rift that ended both their relationship as band member/roadie and filmmaker/film subject? Luckily the answer to the former is no, and for the later it’s yes. The route that Matt and Tom take to get there, however, is engagingly captured and heartwrenchingly narrated for the remainder of the film in Tom’s very able hands. The movie ultimately is a fascinating investigation into family dynamics more than a profile of one of the world’s foremost indie rock groups.

I was frankly surprised to learn that Matt, nine years Tom’s senior, was the golden child, a star athlete and continually successful kid. In retrospect it makes sense as Berninger’s personality is revealed to us through the movie, but most people wouldn’t expect the creative force behind a band such as The National to have lead such an untroubled childhood. Tom, on the other hand, wasn’t such an easy kid to raise. His mother, interviewed in the film, laments how Tom was always quitting his endeavors, how he just couldn’t seem to get it together the way his older brother could. But she also admits that Tom was always the most talented one of her children. It’s readily apparent that Tom is an entertaining, inventive, and funny person to be around, but admittedly a bit immature. Some of my favorite bits in the movie are when he asks various members of the group to stage mock-serious shots, things as bizarre as wiping the steam from the cloudy post-shower bathroom mirror and state “The National belongs to everyone now.” I guess you kind of have to see it to get the humor, but Tom obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously and it comes across as a virtue. Though I would certainly have been annoyed as a member of the band by some of his antics, I found him to be a wildly entertaining narrator of and personality in the film. His interactions with the members of The National provide much of the levity needed in Mistaken for Strangers and also highlight the type of person Tom unabashedly is.

Tom completely proves his mom right regarding his talent – the proof is in Mistaken for Strangers itself, a story of two brothers sorting their relationship out that disguises itself as a music documentary. There were points where I had no idea how the film would conclude, how the Berninger boys would figure out their roles as brothers, one wildly successful as a rock star and the other struggling to find his footing. But Tom captures that journey and tops it off with a finale sequence that gave me chills, a cut of the movie perfectly paired with The National’s music which continually pleases by lending itself so beautifully to film.

The conclusion of Berninger’s movie was strongly reminiscent of the final scene in Warrior, a film about two brothers competing in a mixed martial arts tournament set to The National’s “About Today” track. I only caught the final five minutes of the movie when my husband was watching it, but it was patently obvious that a more ideal song could not have been blended with that movie’s tear-jerking conclusion. No more than a few days later, I had to go back and watch the whole thing. My husband invited me to watch it the first go-round, but I declined just on the basis of its plot line. Warrior was a movie I never would have sought on my own if not for serendipitously walking through the living room and seeing for myself how The National’s music was beautifully, heartbreakingly utilized in that final sequence.

So it seems that this film review, like the film Mistaken for Strangers itself, started as a rumination on one thing and ended with another as it’s central topic. Heed my advice and when you add Mistaken for Strangers to your must-watch list, put Warrior on that queue while you’re at it.

On The Dhamma Brothers

I’ve long been a sucker for a great before and after story. The transformation archetype comes in so many appealing packages; as a hilarious episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy profiling the transformation of an unkempt young man into a self-caring, well-groomed, more considerate gentleman; as the written memoirs of a life changing journey along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; or even as the stunning visual transformation of a slovenly room turned into a magazine-worthy high style space. And when the sure to please before and after story tackles issues of social relevance, such as the American prison system, with meditation as the transformative catalyst, I am completely on board.

Following a selection of inmates at an Alabama maximum security prison during their foray into a meditation program, The Dhamma Brothers speaks to the common humanity we share with people whose existences are relegated to the confines of a jail cell, the weaknesses of our current criminal justice system, the powers of the practice of meditation. The vipassana meditation program instituted at Alabama’s Donaldson Correctional Facility requires inmates to engage in an intensive ten days of meditation, nine of which they must remain completely silent. Forcing people who have committed crimes that landed them in jail for years, if not for the rest of their lives, to identify emotions from a place of observation and nonreaction is no small feat. And it certainly makes for a compelling story.

The documentary film profiles four of the inmates participating in the meditation program, highlighting their early histories, the situations in which their crimes were committed, the resulting sentences, and often their remorse as well. Nearly all of the inmates we meet are charged with murder or homicide, but The Dhamma Brothers makes more human the people who committed these most inhuman of crimes. Putting a face, a voice, a story, a struggle to these men’s experiences serves as one of the foundations from which viewers can evaluate for themselves the prison industrial complex, a very well executed move by the film’s directors Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura, and Anne Marie Stein.

The audience is also privy to the prison administration’s skepticism prior to and even upon the completion of the program. For obvious reasons, executing a Buddhist meditation program to criminals imprisoned in a Bible belt state is bound to be rife with obstacles, misunderstanding, and judgment. Then there are also the vipassana leaders themselves, anxious and uncertain as they prepare to guide inmates through one of the most intense personal challenges anyway could chose to embark upon, and the psychologists and social scientists who share their primarily confident views on the power of meditation.  The directors capture the various moving parts involved in pulling off a program such as this, replete with the stigmas, doubts, and opinions of all parties.

But the vast majority of the film profiles the inmates’ journeys, identifying how strongly these men were transformed by the experience of vipassana. Family members, correctional officers, vipassana teachers, and of course the inmates themselves all provide moving testimonies upon their completion of the initial ten day meditation retreat. Maybe even more profound, however, is the way in which the new meditators struggle when they are no longer able to practice or find themselves without a community of like-minded practitioners. The men try to sustain their practice by holding daily sessions following the first ten day retreat. Soon enough the prison officially bars all group meditation on account of its Buddhist roots (in opposition to the largely Christian culture of the facility). Nearly all of the inmates seek other ways to meditate, so desperately do they require a regular practice in order to be their best selves. One of the inmates is transferred to a lower security prison, but speaks of the difficulty he encountered in adjusting to the culture. Without a community of meditators, in the absense of other inmates that endured the vipassana experience that so deeply changed himself, he finds it difficulty to sustain this now-essential practice.

The film’s impact on viewers slyly parallels that of meditation on the inmates. A gut-wrenching example of love and acceptance, one inmate cites vipassana as the reason he feels love for the man who murdered the inmate’s daughter. Recognizing that her murderer is still a human being, there is no room for hatred in his heart, even for a person who so irrevocably and brutally ended his daughter’s life. Likewise I doubt many audiences can come away from The Dhamma Brothers without an expanded sense of love and acceptance for these men, despite their horrific crimes and dark pasts, their unspeakable sins and irreversible mistakes, for they are still human just like us. The documentary’s directors ensure that audiences are unable to deny this most universal sense of common humanity we share with the folks captured on screen.

Part of what I found so moving about the film was simply seeing the inside of a penitentiary, not the set of a TV show cell or the all too familiar visitation rooms complete with thick glass dividers and old fashioned phones. A uniformity of beige cinderblock, solitary confinement rooms, padlocked doors, correctional officers on patrol, a sea of white-clothed men with hanging heads and handcuffs, patchy grass in the prison yard surrounded by chain link fencing and barbed wire. These rather mild images made all too real to me the sense of despair, depression, remorse, and hopelessness that an inmate must feel. To imagine that these are the only sights a person can hope to lay eyes on for the duration of his or her life. To be housed in such a “correctional” facility without receiving any rehabilitative services to provide even the smallest glimmer of hope that life after serving a sentence could be better enough to guarantee freedom. The images of prison life captured in The Dhamma Brothers alone unearthed these thoughts in my head, leaving me with a sense of deep sadness. Add to that sorrow the profound remorse and enlightenment these men found after meditating, and it was hard to feel anything but despondency that people are relegated to such heartrendingly bleak, monotonous, dead-end existences. I’ve always felt that our prison system is vastly under-rehabilitative and aggressively punitive, offering no form of practical guidance and displaying not a trace of Christian forgiveness. Encouraging them to confront their deepest faults and mistakes through a meditative practice is a incredible opportunity, but a tiny step in the grand scheme of things. 

One of the qualms I sometimes experience as a practitioner of meditation myself is how self-involved a concept it can be. The idea of utilizing this method to achieve enlightenment or to commune with the divine or to wrestle one’s personal demons are all veritable but ultimately selfish goals. The Dhamma Brothers, however, highlights some of the ways in which meditation serves a greater purpose than the one it most obviously serves to the person in meditation. As an inmate states in the film, if everyone in the prison had been practicing vipassana before they committed the crimes which landed them in jail, maybe they never would have seen the inside of the facility at all. The repercussions of their practice ripple continually outward to their community of inmates, to family and friends, to viewers of the film and even theirs feelings for total strangers. The Dhamma Brothers serves as a stark reminder of how meditation is not solely an individual transformation story. Simply witnessing the ways in which the practice impacted this group of Alabama prison inmates can be a true transformation experience for a casual viewer.

On To The Wonder

A beautifully shot film can hide a wide host of cinematic flaws; poor storytelling, under-developed characters, crushingly unsatisfactory conclusions are much more easily forgiven when a movie is breathtaking to behold. That’s why I found myself enjoying To The Wonder in spite of its weaknesses, from a stark lack of dialogue to a tenuous story line.

The general gist of the film isn’t easy to miss, but the subtleties of its characters’ lives deserved more exploration. Opening on the streets of Paris, the alluring Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully gallivants around the city of romance with her lover Neil (Ben Affleck) and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chilene). They move to Oklahoma, when Marina and her daughter quickly grow unhappy. When the two predictably return to France, leaving Neil in the states by himself, he encounters an old love in Jane (Rachel McAdams). The tug of these two women in Neil’s life is explored through director Terrence Malick’s film that relies far more upon striking visuals and poetic voice-overs than standard dialogue. Javier Bardem, so skilled in physically transforming himself with such effortlessness, also stars as an Oklahoman preacher whose story feels out of place, skimpy, and poorly integrated with the rest of the film.

I adore Rachel McAdams but frankly I found the Kuryleno story line much more interesting. Even so, the grit of both relationships remains largely undeveloped. Marina and Neil are remarkably affectionate in the opening Parisian sequence and their passionate bond grows more tortured with time. But all throughout, we have little understanding as to what draws the two together in a specific way. When Neil and Jane reconnect, we similarly grasp very few reasons as to why they ever were or ever should be a couple, apart from the wonderfully orchestrated scenes of the two spending time together in the Oklahoma countryside. It is plain to see that Tatiana desperately misses home upon locating to Oklahoma, her ten-year-old motivations luckily much more accessible than those of the adults in the film.

I can’t fault the actors, but there is something to be desired in the way Malick explores the adult intimacies in To The Wonder. Still, he is able to pull it off because each relationship is unveiled with the same simplicity; neither love story feels underdeveloped in comparison to the other. This stylistic choice provides viewers with a minimal understanding so that we can follow the universal love triangle plot, endearing us to each character primarily through movement, composition, and imagery rather than more traditional means such as dialogue, action, and character development. But as an examination of love, maybe a film doesn’t necessarily require too much of the later.

The visuals are plain stunning and for this, Malick’s film is worth two hours of your time. From the romantically rain-drenched Parisian streets to a rainbow of North American sunsets, endless miles of vibrant red Oklahoma prairie, and brilliantly captured moments of intimacy between lovers, Terrence Malick creates a compelling dichotomy between style and subject. Gorgeous if not standardly idyllic photographic images from each setting are captured by sweeping cameras that just can’t seem to sit still. It is plainly obvious that Malick’s vision is well, if not perfectly, executed in To The Wonder, a fact which merits admiration and respect, independent of whether a filmmaker’s vision is one to which I am personally drawn.

Among fans of Terrence Malick, To The Wonder will easily win favor. Though I’m still undecided as to where I fall on the Malick fandom scale, this movie captured me with its visuals, the stunning imagery allowing me to excuse some of the film’s weaker points as intriguing artistic choices.

On Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Apart from the horrible (and hard to remember) title, I found little to dislike in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a newish release starring Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Rooney Mara. Released in theaters and featured in film festivals during 2013, the movie was only recently released on DVD.

Set in Texas during an indeterminate year in the 1960’s or 70’s, the movie begins with Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) engaged in an undisclosed crime. Amid a shoot out with the local police force, an officer is wounded and though Guthrie fired the shot, Muldoon takes the blame. Bob is sent to prison while Ruth remains in town and soon gives birth to the couple’s baby girl named Sylvia. Years later, Muldoon escapes from prison in an effort to be reunited with Ruth and the daughter he has never met. Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), the officer whose injury sent Muldoon to prison, takes an interest in Ruth and her daughter while tracking down Muldoon’s whereabouts post-prison break.

The film primarily captures Bob Muldoon’s attempts to evade the law and return to his family, but it’s also a wildly romantic and poetic drama given the way in which his love for Ruth overwhelmingly motivates everything Bob does. Past crimes and relationships with other community members are alluded to without receiving much back story. These minor plot points only serve to move the film forward so we really don’t learn much about Bob and Ruth as characters apart from their devotion to one another. But it’s the austerity of the film that I truly appreciated, a stark simplicity reflected not only in the plot and character development (which might sound like a bad thing but actually worked well in this case) but also in an artistic sense too.

It was a gorgeous film on so many levels, from the fantastic score to the uniquely dark cinematography. I was completely smitten by the score, a beautiful mix of strings and percussive sounds that invoked suspense but felt very natural given the film’s austere Texan setting. The look of the film was equally suspenseful, as many scenes were cast in a reddish light or otherwise haloed in near-total darkness. But this wasn’t the sort of crime drama that exercises tension in an eerie or creepy way. If anything, there was a sense of uncertainty and expectancy throughout the entire movie.

I was initially drawn to the movie because of its cast, being a fan of Affleck and Foster. This was the first film in which I saw Mara and though all the performances were remarkable, I found her performance to be especially impressive. For any Breaking Bad fans, Charles Parker, who plays Skinny Pete on the AMC show, also has a small part in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which was a pleasant surprise. In the hands of lesser actors, the movie might have felt redundant or dull. These three were expertly cast, creating a rather compelling drama that is deserving of much more attention than it ever received. If you can get your hands on a copy of it, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a remarkably well-acted treat to the senses for film lovers.

On The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

It has been a struggle to write about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty because I found it so simply and purely enjoyable. This isn’t a film that requires much analysis as it connects with audience members very directly and, I believe, to great satisfaction. Epic, adventurous, heartfelt, happily-ending – it was all those things that going to the movies should be.

Ben Stiller both directed and starred in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, portraying the title character who spends his days in the dark depths of Life magazine’s photography department as a negative assets manager. A nervous and quiet man by nature, Mitty is prone to grand daydreams of adventures that vastly outpace his mundane existence. This “zoning out” as his mother (Shirley MacLain) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) call it, is beautifully executed in the first quarter of the film (although there was one daydream sequence with Stiller and Adam Scott that felt too much like a campy superhero movie for my taste), so much so that I initially worried the entire film would be an insubstantial series of imagination sequences cut straight from the trailer. These first scenes, however, set the tone for and create an interesting parallel to the real world journeys that Mitty soon embarks on.

With Life magazine slated to become an online-only publication (side note: some critics, ahem Leonard Maltin, have criticized this plot point as anachronistic which I completely disagree with, as the end of print still feels entirely relevant to me in 2013/2014), Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott with an awful beard) comes in to handle the transition and pull off the publication of Life’s final print issue. Famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends in a roll of film containing an image, negative 25, that is to be the cover of the last-ever issue of the magazine. Somehow Walter, who has never lost a photograph in his entire 16-year tenure with Life, cannot find the single most important negative of his career. A recent hire to the magazine and Mitty’s love interest, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) encourages Walter to track down the notoriously elusive photographer in an effort to find O’Connell’s image which he purports is representative of the “quintessence” of Life magazine.

And so the real life adventure portion of our film begins. The subtle unfolding of the mysterious location of the negative takes Mitty through breathtaking country in Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas. These scenes retain the beauty and incredibility of his daydreams but feel much more authentic than his earlier imaginings, which were too fantastic and over the top to sustain the film on their own. Mitty catches a shipping vessel by helicopter in Greenland, longboards through the rolling hills of Iceland, makes friends with warlords of Afghanistan, backpacks in the Himalayas, is detained at LAX upon his return home. Those these adventures require us as audience members to stretch our imaginations, thankfully the movie never crosses the line into fantasy.

I will give a small spoiler but it isn’t hard to see this one coming: Mitty does find the negative and it happens to have been in a fairly obvious location all along. But nonetheless, I was so pleasantly surprised that the audience does ultimately see this quintessential Life image, rather than watching a movie structured around something so built up that it cannot possibly be revealed without disappointment. And the negative, once revealed, certainly does not disappoint.

Stiller plays an extremely endearing Mitty as audiences root for him to live life outside the wild imaginings of his mind. Scott was perfectly cast as the “villain,” threatening our protagonist’s career while ruthlessly mocking him and heartlessly tearing down the magazine that Mitty and his coworkers so passionately worked on. I’m not normally a Kristen Wiig fan, but I was completely sold on her as love interest. The audience is able to see in her what Walter sees: a sense of humor, honesty, value for adventure, and kindness. Patton Oswald is a great running gag throughout. In the opening scene, Mitty calls eHarmony regarding his difficulties with the online dating service and reaches cheery customer service rep Todd (Oswald). Because Mitty’s profile is so lackluster, Todd makes it his project to beef up Walter’s page on the eHarmony site, routinely calling him to check in as though the two were old friends. It adds to the humor of the film but also pays off in the end (I won’t give any spoilers on this one). And I don’t think there could have been a better Sean O’Connell than Sean Penn. A slightly pretentious guy completely devoted to his craft, Sean O’Connell is Sean Penn, and the fact that he plays such a central role in the movie but receives so little screen time further enhances that fact.

My main complaints are small in size and number. I’m not a huge fan of the musician Jose Gonzalez (to put it lightly) and his involvement with the film’s score meant that his music kept popping up in the film to my great dismay. The soundtrack was otherwise great, if not at times perfect. Take Arcade Fire’s epic song “Wake Up” – what better song to highlight the beginning of Mitty’s great adventure, when he embarks on a journey unparalleled in his lifetime and musters up every ounce of bravery from his deepest reserves to do so? There were some parts of the trip that, plot-wise, felt rushed. A lot of attention is paid to the progression of his travels at the outset, but then Mitty all of a sudden finds himself back in New York without much explanation only to quickly be off again to Afghanistan. As intelligent audience members, we understand what is going on. We just would hope to see as much attention paid to the entire journey as was devoted to its first leg.

Because of the movie’s PG rating, all the previews before the film were geared toward an audience who has yet to reach high school. Needless to say, I was worried from the opening credits that this movie had been marketed to the wrong audience and I was a member of those misguided folks. My worries were eased pretty much instantly after the opening credits. Far from a kid’s film, there is a striking maturity to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty despite its fantastical elements. Without being cheesy or hokey, Stiller as director was able to strike the perfect balance between imagination and reality, making this movie age appropriate for anyone and utilizing the universality of its central themes.

I’m not sure why critics and audiences have been so divided on Walter Mitty, a movie that provided me and my husband with a purely delightful film-going experience. All I can guess is that cynics were not impressed with a movie that felt neat and tidy with its happy ending, family friendly with its PG rating, or idealistic with its belief in our human capability for love and adventure. Maybe others are griping about the way the movie was adapted. Admittedly, I have not read the short story so I cannot speak to how the character has been translated to film again or if the plot was poorly transformed. In this case, I have to take the film on its own merits as a distinct piece of art.

Much as I can appreciate and enjoy artistic, well-acted or challenging films, there is something indescribable about seeing a movie that simply makes you feel good and begs to be watched again and again. Those kind of movies rise to the top in my book, and that’s why The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just might be my favorite movie of 2013 (seeing it on New Year’s Eve, I got in just under the wire on that one). I left the theater after Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street having really enjoyed myself, but it was a different experience entirely to enjoy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which is, by the way, a movie probably most enjoyed for the first time on the big screen of a theater) and immediately anticipate watching it again in the future. Well done Ben Stiller!

On The Wolf of Wall Street

Who knew Leonardo DiCaprio could do physical comedy? I guess Martin Scorsese had a hunch since he brilliantly case DiCaprio in the stitches-in-your-side hilarious role of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. I don’t know that I have had so much fun at the movies since I saw This is The End. Though the two are largely incomparable, the number of laughs in Scorsese’s latest release rivals that of straightforward comedy films.

Based on true events, The Wolf of Wall Street chronicles Jordan Belfort’s rise from impressionable young Wall Street broker to multimillionaire owner of the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm. During his first day on Wall Street, Belfort shares lunch with his boss Mark Hanna (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) who reveals an extremely lackadaisical attitude towards sex and drugs in the workplace. Hanna’s firm suffers on Black Monday, pushing Belfort back into the job market. Once he discovers the world of penny stocks in a Long Island strip mall, Jordan recognizes a vast opportunity for enterprise. Alongside his new friend Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) and inspired by his tutelage under Hanna, Belfort quickly trains a cohort of pot hustlers to become stockbrokers, founding the Stratton Oakmont firm. Unlike any workplace I’ve ever seen, the firm is home to recreational drug use, prostitution, and lavish parties. Stratton Oakmont in time comes under FBI suspicion, meanwhile growing to a multibillion dollar enterprise as its owners resort to increasingly questionable money laundering schemes.

Along the way, Belfort loses his first wife and marries the woman with whom he was having an affair. He certainly isn’t faithful to her either, although they do have a child together. Hardly the model father, Belfort’s vices include but are hardly limited to quaaludes, extramarital sex, and money. Remarkably enough, he shows no concern for his behavior, how it damages his family or himself. There really isn’t much to like about Belfort, a materialistic, money-hungry, cheater who goes to absurd lengths in pursuit of pleasure and wealth. But in the hands of DiCaprio, Belfort’s character is intriguing enough to keep audiences hooked, despite our better judgment about this guy. The fascination lies in watching such a self-destructive human being make it out alive. And with a running time nearing three hours, it’s quite a challenge to keep audiences engaged with such a despicable protagonist. Miraculously enough, Scorsese pulls it off flawlessly. The movie never dragged, it didn’t feel long at all, and much as I hoped things would not work out for Belfort, I still wanted to know how he managed to come out on top (or at the very least, alive).

How does comedy factor into all of this? The drug scenes are certainly a source of laughs, particularly one in which DiCaprio finds a way to crawl from the payphone inside a country club back to his car, a route which includes a flight of stairs. There are more than a few great lines courtesy of Jonah Hill, which was to be expected, but DiCaprio’s comedy holds up against his costar’s. McConaughey’s portrayal of Mark Hanna sets the tone for the film; he introduces Belfort to the revelry of Wall Street at a level where the stakes are lower, allowing us as audience members to easily laugh it off. Then we find it more natural to find the humor when Belfort is on his own and the stakes are raised. For a movie so saturated with topics that typically lend heaviness to a film, comedy lightens this story and keeps it fun and entertaining.

There are plenty of those classic Scorsese elements (soundtrack and storytelling decisions in particular) that contribute to the overall quality of the film, but The Wolf of Wall Street is largely devoid of any obviously weak links. You would be hard-pressed to find a better cast, let alone an actor that could do what DiCaprio has done with the Belfort character. Making the story so ridiculous as to cull humor from it is a remarkable feat that feels effortless in the hands of Scorsese. While it is easy to critique a film like The Wolf of Wall Street for its moral depravity, its focus on such a disreputable figure, and the like, this is the kind of movie that I use my husband Mike’s litmus test on; the only real question should be did this movie entertain me? And the answer is a resounding yes.

On Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis finally hit theaters in Baltimore, and though it isn’t the most uplifting film of the season, it certainly was worth the wait.

Set in the New York folk scene of 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a glimpse into the life of a struggling folk singer at the dawn of an era when folk music hit its peak. Having recently read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a memoir written by folksinger Dave Van Ronk on whom the Llewyn Davis character is based, I found myself trying to place events from the film within the larger scope of Davis’ life. The film captures but a small moment in the lives of one the most enduring fixtures of New York City’s folk scene. So to me, there was something a bit awkward about the telling of the story; the movie jumps right into Davis’ exhausting efforts to make ends meet as a performer, but doesn’t provide much of a narrative arc nor conclude with a real resolution for the down on his luck protagonist.

The real grit of the movie comes from a series of events, vignettes almost, in which Davis tries to further his career, or at least earn some much-needed income. And these acts provide enough interest to sustain the film despite the otherwise stark plot. A beautiful soundtrack and many pops of humor also provide necessary support to keep viewers engaged despite the meagerness of Davis’ reality.

Ultimately the vast majority of credit for this film’s success is owed to Oscar Isaac. His performance as Llewyn Davis is endearing, earnest, and made even more remarkable given that he performed all the music himself. Viewers constantly sympathize with the Davis character, a hardworking and patently talented folksinger waiting to get his due. Homeless, he sleeps on the couches of his more generous friends while hopping from gig to gig in search of a paycheck. Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake portray Jean and Jim, a musician couple whose kindnesses Davis has thoroughly exhausted, especially once Jean learns she is pregnant with a child that just may belong to her struggling homeless friend. There isn’t much to like about Mulligan’s character in the film, as she constantly gripes about the sorry state of Davis’ life and her pregnant situation without once conceding her own role in the matter. But her performance is fine, and Timberlake is surprisingly satisfying as well. In the role of a folksinger, Timberlake has an opportunity to exercise his vocal talents in a genre new to most of his fans, while also representing a burgeoning folk style against which Davis’ more traditional sound is highly disadvantaged. John Goodman also passes through Davis’ life as Roland Turner, a man with whom Davis catches a ride while traveling to Chicago in search of musical success. His attitude toward Davis’ choice of music is indicative of the mainstream American attitude to folk music of the day and his performance is winning and hilarious as always.

Though there is no clear cut conclusion to the film and its ending is certainly far from happy, I found myself still deeply satisfied by the movie. It is a character study in passion, struggle, and strife. During his real life, Dave Van Ronk never earned the credit he was due, falling under the shadow of larger names like Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Janis Joplin. His role in the folk scene was instrumental and his struggle epitomizes that of so many other performers of the time. The Coen brothers spotlight one sliver of this struggle in a beautifully shot film set to a soundtrack that would make any traditional folk fan or modern day hipster swoon. Surprisingly funny and enhanced by a star-making performance from Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis beats the odds and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable movie-going experience.

 

On Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey is quickly working his way to the top of my favorite actors list. During my formative years, he starred in a number of less-reputable films that I loved (How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days and The Wedding Planner, anyone?) although with age, I came to realize how frivolous and silly those movies were. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy indulging in them from time to time, but it certainly lowered my estimation of Mr. McConaughey.

Enter the year 2013 and Matthew McConaughey blew me away in Mud, playing the title character, an outlaw who befriends two young boys in an effort to outrun the authorities with the love of his life in tow. Following on the heels of that Oscar-worthy performance is another McConaughey movie with lots of Oscar buzz: Dallas Buyers Club. And I’m back on team McConaughey again.

Once again McConaughey takes the lead, this time portraying Ron Woodroof, Texas rodeo junkie, open homophobe, and drug-addict who discovers he has contracted HIV and is given a mere 30 days to live. But this isn’t the world of today, when public knowledge of HIV and AIDS is widespread, when people understand how the virus is spread. This is 1985, the year when Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis is revealed, when the disease is grossly misunderstood by the public and even the medical community, when the term “HIV” is equated with homosexual behavior in everyone’s minds.

Remarkably enough, Woodroof outlives those 30 days after self-medicating with non-FDA-approved pills. A longtime illicit drug user, Woodroof has no qualms about obtaining illegal substances through criminal means. When he discovers that AZT, the highly coveted drug in the preliminary stages of human testing in the US, is toxic to the human body, he turns to other medications popular among HIV patients outside the states. Connecting with a network of patients through Rayon, an HIV-positive transvestite Ron meets in the hospital, the formerly homophobic man capitalizes upon his discovery and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, an outlet for the alternative HIV/AIDS treatments Woodroof has smuggled into the states. Instead of illegally selling medication directly to the people, the club’s clientele purchases a monthly membership with which they are granted unlimited access to Woodroof’s drugs. This enterprising plan entangles Woodroof with the FDA but also provides an audience and a platform for his campaign to end AZT drug trials at the local hospital.

The change in Woodroof’s attitude toward gay people is subtle and well played; he certainly capitalizes upon the sheer volume of homosexuals infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, but his motive with the buyers club is not financial success, it is to help improve and prolong the lives of others suffering from the disease. One of the most notable scenes in the film comes when Woodroof is at the height of his reign with the club. While grocery shopping with Rayon, Ron runs into TJ, a homophobic friend from his Rodeo days. TJ refuses to shake Rayon’s hand after the two are introduced. Quickly confining TJ in a headlock, Woodroof forces his old buddy to shake hands with his new transvestite friend. Throughout the entire scene, it’s clear that TJ thinks his initial suspicion that Ron was a closeted gay man are confirmed, for here he is with a cross-dressing man in public. But with a beautiful selflessness and confidence, Woodroof coolly avoids clarifying the nature of his relationship with Rayon to TJ. It’s as though Ron wouldn’t dare deign to correct his old friend’s false assumption because Ron himself is so far past that form of bigotry and hate. His only concern is that Rayon be treated with the basic decency any human being deserves. It was the kind of scene that really stuck with me, and I imagine it will be the one that defines this film whenever I think of it in the future.

Did I mention that the whole movie is based on a true story? It’s a pretty remarkable story at that, but the fact that this film recounts a series of historical events is what leads to its most glaring (but still, not very glaring at all) flaw: the ending of the movie left something to be desired. Obviously this isn’t a film deserving of a neat and tidy happy ending, given the content. Things are a little jumpy as the film nears its conclusion and viewers don’t get a clear view of what happens to the Dallas Buyers Club itself or how Woodroof’s fight against the FDA contributes to eventual changes in HIV treatment. The trouble is that the story of the fight against HIV/AIDS is so much bigger than Ron Woodroof, but his relatively small vignette is so interesting as to be film-worthy. A valiant effort is made to provide a satisfying ending when the story turns to questions of how to live the one life we’re each given. Under the auspices of the movie’s tagline “dare to live,” Woodroof talks with his doctor regarding his doubts about the way he lived his life. The content of this conversation comes back into play during the final scenes of the movie, an attempt at providing audiences with a satisfactorily happy ending to Woodroof’s difficult story.

McConaughey’s performance in this film is fantastic, quite separate from the dramatic physical transformation he went through to look the role of an HIV patient. Casting Jared Leto as Rayon was a bold and brilliant move. It took me some time to recognize Leto as Rayon because his performance completely lacked the self-consciousness I would have expected from a straight male playing a transvestite. Jennifer Garner is Dr. Eve Saks, one of the physicians overseeing the AZT trials who grows close to her patients and finds herself morally confused regarding the apparent results of the trial. Steve Zahn is notable as Tucker, a local cop who knows Woodroof and pops up from time to time when he comes into trouble with the law. There are plenty of other familiar faces throughout the movie, but McConaughey and Leto truly take the cake on this one. I’m not sure how often I’ll be overcome with a desire to re-watch this film, but I certainly would have regretted missing this one with such remarkable performances of a complicated but artfully-told story.

On About Time

I’m a sucker for a good romantic comedy but I was starting to think they were a thing of the past. Those kind of love stories where a bumbling Hugh Grant character sweeps a devastatingly gorgeous woman off her feet and to a happy ending aren’t just a guilty pleasure, they are simply a requirement for many ladies from time to time. Although Rachel McAdams missed the boat with her first time travel romance, her most recent effort included the lovable Bill Nighy and was directed by Grant’s buddy Richard Curtis, so I had to give it a try. The result was wildly delightful.

About Time may be marketing itself as a film about time travel, however the lead character’s mystical ability to skip back in time plays a refreshingly small role in the plot of this satisfying romantic comedy. As the title suggests, the film centers on time but the focus is upon how even the most ordinary among us should use and cherish our precious time, rather than the protagonist’s unlikely gift for manipulating it.

When Tim turns 21 years old, his father reveals the unbelievable fact that all men in the family are blessed with the remarkable ability to time travel. Though the young Tim immediately tests out his father’s revelation by going back in time to rectify a potentially romantic moment gone awry, his father strictly recommends that time travel only be used in circumstances of the utmost importance and after very careful consideration. Shortly thereafter, Tim moves to London to pursue a career in law and to find love. Time travel becomes more of a useful tool in the big city, but he quickly learns its limitations.

Tim uses his time traveling skills to assist his insufferable playwright roommate Harry, by rectifying a horrible episode of on-stage amnesia during opening night of Harry’s most promising work. The night of the play’s debut, however, happens to be the very same evening when Tim meets the lovely Mary. By going back in time to set things right for Harry, Tim rewrites the history of his own night, erasing his introduction to Mary, her phone number from his phone, and all her memories of him.

Luckily Tim is able to track Mary down and replay their next meeting until he gets it perfectly right. Certain scenes are repeated for humor as Tim attempts to steer events from the past to better outcomes, but refreshingly enough, the time travel trope never becomes a crutch to the plot. As Tim and Mary’s relationship evolves, the whole time travel element actually takes a backseat to the stories of love and family which comprise the bulk of the film. There were few if any great shocks in the movie, though I was constantly guessing incorrectly what would happen next. About Time was certainly more subtle than any edge-of-your-seat action movie, but Curtis deftly drew on the opportunities for unpredictability offered by a time traveling protagonist.

Anachronistic plotlines and time travel can get quite messy on screen, leaving viewers with unanswered questions and a degree of confusion that distracts from the meat of a story. A few of the restrictions that defined Tim’s time travel were unveiled in seemingly irreversible events that he was somehow able to make right again. I was mildly confused by these scenes (which I don’t want to describe in great detail for fear of revealing too much), though in the grand scheme of things, this flaw failed to detract from my overall viewing experience. Soon enough, something just-so sentimental brought a tear to my eye or Nighy made me laugh, and I forgot about the time travel confusion from a few moments prior.

Domhnall Gleeson plays a winning and appealing Tim, while Rachel McAdams is lovely as ever in her portrayal of Mary. You can’t lose with Bill Nighy, who brings the perfect blend of humor and heart to the role of Tim’s father (and I can’t say I expected anything less). The role of Tim’s sister Kit Kat, filled by Lydia Wilson, is hard to master, a brilliantly strange and fun-loving person who is also absolutely adored by her brother. But Wilson strikes a delicate balance between wacky and endearing. In the hands of director Richard Curtis, this talented crew of actors pulled off a perfectly balanced story that could have easily become over-the-top and outlandish. Instead, About Time satisfied my craving for a decent rom-com like no trip to the movies has in years.

On Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks is one of those romantic comedies that really hits the spot – a satisfying, fun, and engrossing love story that does not rely upon unnecessary drama, overly contrived situations, cheesy romance, or any of the other devices commonly used to appeal to the masses of mainstream film-goers.

Paul Dano is perfect as Calvin, a prodigy of a novelist who published his masterpiece before the age of 20. Struggling to overcome depression and writer’s block, Calvin takes the advice of his therapist to complete a writing exercise about someone who likes his dog. He creates Ruby, a tiny redhead with lots of personality, in his fictional piece, only to find that one day she shows up in his apartment in the flesh (and very well played by Zoe Kazan at that). What further complicates things, beyond the fact that Ruby’s existence itself is questionable, is Calvin’s hold on her – by writing it, he can make her do, say, think, and feel whatsoever he pleases. All in combination with his anxiety and lack of healthy relationship experience.

Chris Messina portrays Calvin’s brother Harry, the only person who really knows how Ruby came into his brother’s life, while Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas fill out the roles of Calvin’s mother and stepfather. The talented cast really shines in this sweet and engaging story. Obviously you need to suspend disbelief to get into this one, but it isn’t very difficult to do so. Calvin’s total transformation after meeting Ruby keeps you rooting for the couple throughout. And Ruby herself is a delightful, compelling female lead even if she does get relegated to the “manic pixie dream girl” category by many reviewers of the film. 

Zoe Kazan not only shines as the title character in the movie, she also wrote the screenplay. Kazan demonstrates a talent for screenwriting that I still find impressive, regardless of the fact that both of her parents are screenwriters (Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord). There is a remarkable clarity to the story of Ruby Sparks, the very concept of which could easily drift into complicated and/or hysterical territory. But she gets the balance just right and makes sure her viewers care about her characters throughout – enough so that you want to watch this one again and again. There’s really nothing more to ask for out of an independent romantic comedy.

On The Way Way Back

As we left the theater after seeing The Way Way Back, my husband Mike said that this particular movie made up for the string of disappointing summer films we’d wasted our hard-earned money on so far this year (ie. Man of Steel and Now You See Me). And I wholeheartedly agree – The Way Way Back was easily one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen in some time and it helped me to forget about a succession of recent less than satisfying movie experiences.

The story centers around 14 year old Duncan, forced to vacation with his mother at her boyfriend’s beach house. Already lacking in self-confidence, Duncan is highly introverted and completely misunderstood by his constantly-derisive potential stepfather Trent, played by Steve Carrell. On a side note, it’s a minor miracle as well as an indicator of this film’s quality that the directors were able to make Carrell, one of today’s most affable working actors, into a villain of sorts. Duncan’s mother Pam, portrayed by Toni Collette, is not so different from her shy son, a pushover who never seems quite comfortable in her own skin, someone who has trouble standing up for herself, let alone her only son. Add in Trent’s catty teenage daughter Steph, a drunken divorcee neighbor named Betty (comically played by the talented Allison Janney), and Kip and Joan, Trent’s wild vacation friends, and Duncan’s vacation is off to a horrible start from the very first day.

What does it take to break an awkward teenage boy, a child of divorce, a kid with no sense of self worth into someone confident, calm, even happy? How can his shell be cracked, his lonely life be made more full? What can possibly overcome the negative reinforcement he finds in his daily life? The Way Way Back’s answer to these problems and many more is Sam Rockwell.

In an effort to escape the people surrounding him in his temporary home, Duncan sneaks off by bike each day and in so doing discovers the local water park, Water Wizz. After catching the eye of Owen, the free spirited and alarmingly lax owner of the park, Duncan gets a job at Water Wizz, a place which soon becomes his daily refuge. In the hands of Sam Rockwell, the character of Owen absolutely comes to life and defines this movie. Though his management style is certainly a cause for concern, Owen is a hilarious and compassionate mentor to Duncan, making jokes that fall far above most of his young customers’ heads but are sure to get laughs from viewers. And never once does Owen demonstrate anything less than great kindness toward his newest employee. Based on what I saw from the trailer, I wasn’t sure how Rockwell’s character would be pulled off – I’m supposed to believe that a decent-looking guy in his mid-thirties randomly takes endless pity on an awkward teenager in town for vacation? The unconventional friendship between the two, however, was flawlessly developed; their meeting seemed not the least bit forced, for it was completely in keeping with Owen’s relentless kindness and sense of fun. Owen’s simple but genuine caring for Duncan does wonders for the uncertain adolescent, instilling in him a sense of place, belonging, and self-assuredness that his meager family life could never have hoped to afford. It was Rockwell’s portrayal of Owen that really won me over with this film – and did so within the first five minutes that he appeared on screen. Owen plays a pivotal role in Duncan’s coming-of-age story, replete with young love, the gaining of confidence (as well as a sense of humor), and family drama.

What I seem to hear again and again from the few people I know that saw this film is how remarkably honest it is. The first twenty minutes are almost painful to watch because Duncan’s reclusive nature is both so authentically portrayed and so desperately sad. But instead of feeling highly contrived, the story unfolds quite effortlessly. Things could not possibly get lower for Duncan, so it’s not stretch for the film to end on its subtle but satisfying climax. The movie leaves viewers with a sense of contentment, but The Way Way Back is more than just a shallow or superficial feel good film.

Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (contributors to The Descendants screenplay) both play delightful supporting roles in the movie, alongside Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Liam James demonstrate true acting prowess as the young Duncan and AnnaSophia Robb is wonderfully poised as Susanna, Duncan’s love interest/neighbor.

Well-acted, satisfying, comedic, and warm and fuzzy without being overly so – not much more I could have asked out of a summer movie. The Way Way Back was a welcome relief from this year’s wannabe blockbusters and poorly executed indies.

On Before Midnight

Much as I had always wanted to watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’m ultimately glad that I waited to see each of these films until the past two weeks. Doing so saved me a few years of anxiously awaiting the third act of this set, Before Midnight. The series centers around two people, Jesse, portrayed by Ethan Hawke, and Celine, played by Julie Delpy, who meet on a train in Venice and spend the night together (Before Sunrise). They plan to meet again in six months time, but as viewers, we don’t know if that meeting ever happens until part two, Before Sunset. The sequel takes place nine years after the original when Jesse and Celine have another chance meeting. Though we learn that their planned meeting never took place eight years and six months ago, the two reconnect and regret that they failed to do so sooner. Though the ending of Before Sunset is ambiguous, it is extremely easy for viewers to assume the two end up together following this film.

My husband Mike regards certain of his favorite films as perfect movies. For me, the idea of a perfect movie was always hard to fathom. My concept of perfection is too mathematical – I consider things to be flawless in their simplicity, their adherence to an ideal form, the way in which they achieve a final solution without any remainders or untied strings. Even my favorite movies were far from perfect in my mind, given their nuances and complexity. The term “perfect” simply did not fit. But when I saw Before Sunset, I finally recognized the ability of a film to achieve perfection. It wasn’t so much that I absolutely adored the film and was sad to see it end after a mere 80 minutes. It had more to do with the film achieved so flawlessly in that limited span of time. There were spot-on performances, not-overly-contrived romance, realistic dialogue, appealing and well-developed characters, inspiring conversations touching upon thought-provoking themes, and an idyllic Parisian setting. Before Sunrise marked the realization of the previously-unattainable perfect form in film for me; it was exactly the movie I would have made given the premise provided. And so it was that I eagerly waited one week to view the next installment, Before Midnight, when it finally came to Baltimore.

I won’t say I was disappointed by Before Midnight – I knew it would be a much more realistic film than the other two and I had come to terms with the fact that the romance between Jesse and Celine could only go so far, eighteen years after the original. The movie is much more ground in reality than the previous too, both of which were delightfully romantic and idealistic. Now that Jesse and Celine are together, they have to deal with the struggles of working, parenting, long-distance parenting (Jesse has a child who lives in Chicago while he and Celine live in Paris), and trying to connect in spite of it all.

Like it’s forebears, Before Midnight was a film structured around dialogue and conversation, rather than action. The movie attempts to capture a relationship between two people through their interactions on a single day while on vacation. Starting when Jesse drops his son off at the airport, the couple then drives back to the house where they’ve been staying, their fifteen minute conversation on the drive captured in a single cut. They enjoy dinner with their hosts, then wander to a hotel where their friends have generously given them a free night’s stay. As always, the setting was beautiful, the acting impeccable, and the story gave me more than enough food for thought.

There is certainly something painfully realistic about the film, giving me pause as to how I will weather all of the struggles and pains of middle age with my own husband. But I was also extremely aggravated by Celine, whose neuroses grew tremendously, who stubbornly turned every discussion into a fight, who failed to give in to Jesse’s relentless attempts at appeasing and romancing her. Before Midnight could have easily been a film about two people trying to reconnect in spite of their busy lives – and I would have been quite pleased. That is, after all, what I expected. But the actual product went one step further. It felt like a film about two people whose relationship is completely falling apart in such a way that one person it clearly to blame for their failure. The character Celine truly alienated herself from Jesse and viewers. While I appreciate the film’s attempt at accurately reflecting reality, I’d like to believe that people want to make their relationships work in a way Celine did not. I go to the movies for an escape from reality and Before Midnight harped a little too much on fears of what I may become as a working mother twenty years down the road.

I don’t regret watching Before Midnight by any means. It was still a thought-provoking romance, as the previous two were also. And I have every intention of watching the next installment as I believe they’ve decided to continue making these films indefinitely every nine or so years. I simply wish it had been more satisfying, with less knock-down-drag-out fighting, more of a resolution, and a taste of the Celine that we all adored years ago. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are movies for romantics, and Before Midnight is designed for the realists among us. I happily consider myself to belong to the former camp – so at least I’ll always have the first two movies of this set.