Sunday, February 23, 2014

Viva Cuba (2005) ***

This one got me back on track with my Spanish-language films.  Featuring good child actors and beautiful footage of Cuba, “Viva Cuba” is a simple story that is very engaging to watch.
Malu and Jorge are around ten years old, and best friends.  When Malu’s mom gets a long-awaited opportunity to leave Cuba, the kids are heartbroken at the prospect of being separated.  Out of desperation, they hatch a plan to travel the length of Cuba to find Malu’s estranged father and get him to prevent the move.  Traveling by train, bus, ox-cart, and foot, they cover a gorgeous cross-section of Cuba, while their parents and the police search frantically.
“Viva Cuba”  touches lightly on Cuban social and political issues, but the focus is mainly on the kids and how they sort through these differences.  It’s a nice reminder that if we can manage not to blow the planet up, our kids may do some things better than we did.  The film’s third star is Cuba itself.  From the cities to the oceans to the forests, the country is featured beautifully.   The movie is nothing to write to your abuela about, but it’s a sweet, little coming-of-age tale that is fun to watch.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Sapphires (2012) ***½

“90% of the music out there is shite.  The other 10% is Soul.”  Thus, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) convinces a group of Australian aboriginal girls to stop performing Country songs and to seek greatness by embracing their blackness. Gail, Cynthia, and Julie are sisters, and these girls can sing!  When Dave hears them at a talent contest, he sees potential that the racist townsfolk are blind to.  The girls recruit their light-skinned cousin, Kay, who is passing as a white girl in the city, and together they form The Sapphires.  Dave arranges a tour entertaining troops in Vietnam, and the girls quickly find a following.
“The Sapphires” is one of those movies that knows exactly what it wants to be.  It has a little to say about Race, a little to say about Love, and a lot of music to offer, and it does those things in a nice, orderly fashion.  No excess sentimentality, no cheap plot twists, just charm and soul.  The film is highly reminiscent of 1991’s “The Commitments,” which is okay because both are fun, small movies full of good music.  Chris O’Dowd is charming as always, and the girls are delightful.
I didn’t realize until the end that “The Sapphires” is based, albeit loosely, on an actual Aborigine girl group from the 60’s.  The original Sapphires didn’t become big stars, and they are not to be confused with the American group by the same name.  The film is based on the play “The Sapphires” by Tony Briggs, son of one of the original Sapphires.   The film touches on Australia’s racial history, including the government-run program of abducting light-skinned Aborigine kids, but it manages not to be heavy-handed.  Mostly, the music takes center stage, and none of it is “shite”.

3 ½ stars out of 5

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Europa Report (2013) ****

“Europa Report” may be the best film from 2013 that no one has heard of.  It almost slipped right by me.  I was looking for something to watch while working out, and Netflix offered it up on a list of action movies, where it didn’t even really belong.  I’m glad they listed it, though, because otherwise I likely never would have seen this awesome, low-budget, slow-burner of a sci-fi horror story.
Filmed in found-footage style, “Europa Report” tells the story of a group of astronauts on an extended mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.  By extended mission, I mean the trip there takes two years, so this is serious dedication.  Their motivation is the possibility of a liquid ocean underneath the ice of Europa’s surface, and the speculative possibility of life forms in that water.
The story is told through footage from cameras on the spacecraft and in the spacesuits, with fill-in narration by members of the Earth-based control team.  The story is told partly out of sequence, so a sense of menace is established early on by the revelation that 1) Communications are lost a few months into the journey, and 2) Something happens to one of the crew on the way.  Then there’s a long period where not a lot happens other than some character establishment and cool science background stuff.  Ultimately, they make it to Europa and find more than they bargained for.
This film has generally met with good reviews, but I have read accusations that it is nothing more than a horror film.  These accusations are completely unfair.  The film does create a sense of dread, using the found-footage format quite effectively to make the viewer strain to see what is just off camera.  The scary things that happen, however, are in service to the greater story about the crew’s heroic dedication to getting their data back to earth.  At times they do things that we know are going to end badly, but it makes sense that these astronauts would take these risks in the pursuit of knowledge.
That is the great strength of “Europa Report:” it tends to make sense.  The film shows a lot of respect for the science behind its story.  The cast is also excellent.  There are no big stars, but you may recognize Michael Nyqvist from the original, Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Sharlto Copley from “District 9.”  (Both outstanding films in their own right, by the way.)  The footage is mostly claustrophobic, but the occasional shot of the icy surface of Europa and of Jupiter as viewed from Europa are stunning, reminding us of the sense of wonder that drives this fictional mission.  It’s unfortunate that this film failed to find an audience.  It was only shown in about a dozen theaters, and according to internet sites has raked in less than a million dollars.  I suppose the pace is too slow for many viewers.  Hopefully the film will find a second life as a cult classic for those who have the patience for a gripping story that doesn’t insult your intelligence.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) ****

For my generation, who came of age in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, the AIDS epidemic was a defining event.  Right at the moment when we became aware of our sexuality, the whole world was becoming aware that sex could equal death.  After a few decades of apparent mastery of infectious diseases, with successful vaccines and antibiotics, the western world did not take well to a new, deadly epidemic.  Hysteria over AIDS got all mixed up with homophobia, and it was an ugly time.
It’s no little feat that the film “Dallas Buyers Club” manages to explore such an unpleasant period while maintaining a sense of humor.  Credit goes to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for giving their characters just enough over-the-top charm to wash down the bitter medicine of the film’s theme.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a hard-living oilfield roughneck and rodeo cowboy who discovers he has AIDS.  Not only do his friends and co-workers abandon him, but there was no approved treatment at the time. Ron gets black-market AZT, but the doses used then caused more problems than they fixed, and he winds up nearly dying.  He wanders down to Mexico to see a doctor who treats AIDS patients with cutting edge foreign meds and alternative treatments.  Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) gets him feeling so much better that he convinces the doctor to sell him a carload of the meds, which he smuggles back to Dallas to sell to an eager community of AIDS patients.  One of them is a transgender woman named Rayon (Leto), who helps Ron get access to the gay community, where most of their potential customers are.  Ultimately, in order to stay one step ahead of the law, Ron and Rayon switch to selling memberships in what is essentially a medicine co-op.  Ron uses the money to travel the world smuggling unapproved meds back to Dallas.
Like many awards-season films, “Dallas Buyers Club” is a movie you probably won’t ever watch a second time, but you will be glad you saw it the one time.  If you do re-watch this, it will be because of Matthew McConaughey, who lends his inherently unsympathetic character such a life force that you can’t look away from him.  Jared Leto is perhaps less magnetic, but still mesmerizing as Rayon.  It’s a testament to how well he inhabits this woman-trapped-in-a-man’s-body that the only time he looks like he is wearing drag is when he briefly puts on a man’s suit.  Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare are more one-dimensional in thankless roles as Infectious Disease doctors, but the important people in this movie are the AIDS patients, and they knock it out of the park.
The pathos of these patients’ is heartbreaking.  Some of the emotional scenes get pretty intense, but they don’t feel like cheap sentimentality.  This movie earns its crying scenes.  We live now in a much better time for AIDS patients.  The disease is treatable, and most Westerners now understand that you can’t catch it from shaking someone’s hand or giving them a hug.  There’s a whole generation of young people now who never lived with the fear and hysteria surrounding AIDS.  “Dallas Buyers Club,” like the movie “Philadelphia,” tells an important piece of history, and hopefully we will be humbled by taking a look at where we were only a couple of decades ago.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Don Jon (2013) ****

Tell people that you are addicted to drugs or to porn, and you are immediately labeled as someone with A PROBLEM.  On the other hand, people hardly think about the pathological properties of excessive television or cell phone use.  That’s one of the themes of Joe Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon”: everyone has their addictions.
Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a handsome, un-cultured guido of the type depicted in the TV show “Jersey Shore.”  His life is pretty uncomplicated.  He works out, cleans his apartment, and goes out with his buddies to pick up girls on a regular basis.  He also jerks off to porn.  A lot.  Even though he has sex with a different girl every week, he prefers sex with just himself and his computer.  As Jon explains, he is able to lose himself while watching porn in a way that he can’t with the random girls he brings home.
When Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) enters his life, Jon hopes that pattern is going to change.  He is certainly in new territory when he finds himself pursuing her, introducing her to family and friends, and becoming her boyfriend.  The only really special thing about Barbara, though, is that she holds out on sex longer than other girls Jon has met.  That allows her to manipulate him for a while.
When Barbara catches Jon watching porn, she freaks out.  An older woman Jon meets in his night class (Julianne Moore) is a lot more open minded, and she helps him come to understand his porn not as a shameful secret but as a symptom of his emotional immaturity, and a habit that is helping him avoid personal growth.
Despite its titillating subject matter and graphic content, “Don Jon” is not really about porn.  Its about the ways in which people objectify each other, and not just sexually.  Don views women as sexual objects, of course, describing Barbara as the most beautiful “thing” he has ever seen in his life.  For her part, Barbara objectifies Jon, fitting him into a boyfriend/future husband role based on the Hollywood romances she watches so avidly, which serve as her own version of porn.
It would be easy for this to be a heavy, preachy film full of in-your-face messages, but the good news is that “Don Jon” is a really fun movie to watch.  There is graphic sexual content that will drive away some viewers, but most will find it thought-provoking and often hilarious.  Everything about the movie is well-done, and considering that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote and directed it, “Don Jon” serves notice that he is going to be a filmmaker to watch.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Instructions not Included (Ne Se Aceptan Devoluciones, 2013) *

This is another one I chose primarily to help me with my Spanish, but I actually had high hopes for this Mexican film,  as it is the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever in the U.S.  What a disappointment!
Valentin (Eugenio Derbez) is an aimless ladies’ man in Acapulco, working his way through a string of beautiful tourists and avoiding responsibility as best he can.  Everything changes when one of his old flings, Julie, (Jessica Lindsey) shows up with his child, then abandons the baby girl with him.  Valentin pursues the mother back to L.A., but with no English and only her first name and a single picture to work from, he has no luck.  Instead, he lands a job as a Hollywood stunt-man.  He spends the next seven years as a dedicated father to Maggie (Loreto Peralta), until Julie turns up to once again shake up their lives.
The humor is broad, but the actresses who play Maggie at various ages are charming, and the chemistry between Derbez and Peralta makes the first half of the film fairly enjoyable.  Then Julie shows up again, and the melodrama starts.  From that point on, it starts to feel like a telenovela, and the ending is unforgivably sappy.  I actually felt angry at the filmmakers by the end for their crude sentimentality.
The ending of “Instructions not Included” is so bad that it ruined the whole movie for me.  I can’t explain why it was so popular other than that people will watch anything if you sell it to them hard enough.

1 star out of 5

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) ***1/2

It should really be no contest.  In the Marvel/Avengers universe you have the Iron Man franchise, featuring an awesome, flying, rocket-shooting suit, inhabited by the wisecracking Robert Downey, Jr.  Then you have Captain America, a musty, earnest, old, WWII-era patriot.  The “Iron Man” franchise should easily be superior in every way, with its messages about renewable energy and its complex, flawed-genius hero.  And yet, I found myself enjoying “Captain America: The First Avenger” much more than I did “Iron Man.”
Maybe it’s because “Captain America” has the courage to play it straight.  Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers not as some complicated/dark/glib anti-hero, but as a genuinely swell guy who happens to be scrawny and asthmatic.  He stands up to bullies, and, like Cool Hand Luke, he keeps getting up every time they knock him down.  Steve’s greatest wish is to join the Army with his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) to fight the Nazis.  While he has the heart, the rest of him is completely unfit for military service.  Then his multiple attempts to enlist bring him to the attention of an Army doctor (Stanley Tucci) who is recruiting volunteers for a military experiment.  The procedure turns Rogers into a buff, superhuman fighting machine.  Meanwhile, the Nazis have their own superman, the megalomaniacal Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving).  Schmidt gains access to an energy-filled cube called the Teseract, and uses its power to create unstoppable weaponry.  Wearing red, white, and blue, Rogers sets out to stop him.
What makes “Captain America” compelling is that it isn’t about the muscles.  Whether he is skinny or buff, Steve Rogers has a lot of heart.  It’s what makes him willing to give his life to save others, where Iron Man’s Tony Stark seems like he would rather be hitting on Gwyneth Paltrow than saving the world.  Maybe that makes “Captain America” a bit earnest for our age, or maybe it’s just old-fashioned enough to feel new.  The Captain America sequel “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” comes out this spring, and I’ll definitely give it a chance.

3.5 stars out of 5