Barry


Even reading a Ralph Ellison book in a Harlem schoolyard as a 20-year-old, the future President can’t get away from Joe Biden!

(2016) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Jay, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd, Sawyer Pierce, Eric Berryman, Ralph Rodriguez, Danny Henriquez, Tessa Albertson, Tommy Nelson, Annabelle Attanasio, Matt Ball, Markita Prescott. Directed by Vikram Gandhi

 

Barack Obama is a President who has provoked very extreme reactions. To the left he is a hero, a model of decorum and grace, whose intelligence and class has carried him through one of the roughest most vitriolic attacks from the opposition in the history of the Presidency. To the right he is nothing short of a terrorist, a Muslim whose mission was to destroy our country from within. There are some who take the middle ground between the two of course but largely those two extremes have been the popular conception from each political point of view.

But there was a time before that when he was just an ordinary college student. Back then, everyone called him Barry (Terrell) and he had about as much confidence in his future as any college student, maybe even less so. I suspect if anyone had told Barry that he was going to be the 44th President of the United States he’d probably want some of what you’ve been smoking – Barry after all is not above occasionally partaking in the wacky weed.

He has just transferred to Columbia University in New York City looking for a degree in political science. The product of a white mother and an African father, his parents are divorced; his mom is in Hawaii where he grew up, his dad has returned to Kenya. Barry is trying to write a letter to his dad to express what he feels but can’t find the words. Barry also feels like an outside in both the white and African-American spheres.

He meets Charlotte (Joy), the daughter of wealthy parents and the two begin dating but as always Barry isn’t sure where he fits in. He plays street ball with local guys from the neighborhood like PJ (Mitchell) with whom he strikes up a friendship, but he feels like an outsider. Similarly he doesn’t belong in the world of country clubs and pricey restaurants that his girlfriend is used to. His roommate Will (Coltrane) tries to help but mostly the two get high together.

To my way of thinking this isn’t so much a biography of the President as it is an exploration of how young men can be lost in not knowing who they are. Of course, it’s especially true for someone in Barry’s situation but it should ring true for just about everybody. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography in any case (Charlotte, for one thing, is a composite character) but it supposedly reflects Obama’s inner turmoil and his personality pretty well at that time of his life.

The overall tone is pretty laid-back which flirts with actual boredom from time to time. There is a whole lot of philosophizing going on and not a ton of conflict. Most of the conflict is pretty much internal; while Obama struggles with finding a place he’s truly comfortable with in both the white world and the African-American and there are moments in which he feels discrimination from both sides, it isn’t as if he is overly oppressed here. There are times he is hassled by a University Security guard for likely the color of his skin. He also is targeted by angry African-Americans who resent the opportunities he is getting because of his Caucasian blood.

Terrell does a pretty good job of playing Obama, capturing his very recognizable cadence of speech. This isn’t always a flattering portrait but then again, think of yourself as a 20-year-old and see if a film biography of you at that age will be one you’re particularly proud of. It’s a pretty layered performance and Terrell captures the essence of the man. How close it is to the real man is best left answered by those who know the ex-President well (which certainly doesn’t describe me) but I think that there are at least elements of the real Barack Obama here, or at least the real Barack Obama at 20.

As I’ve said with similar movies about public figures of recent years, I don’t know that this gives us any real insight into the heart and mind of our 44th president who is a notoriously private individual. It isn’t scintillating material but those who admire President Obama will find this interesting. Those who feel the opposite aren’t going to watch this anyway.

REASONS TO GO: It seems to be an attempt to humanize the 44th President by portraying him as a young college student trying to find himself.
REASONS TO STAY: I thought it went a little too low-key.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find a little bit of violence, some drug use, a smidgen of sensuality and a small amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film of both director Vikram Gandhi and star Devon Terrell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southside With You

Advertisements

Southside with You


A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms

X-Men: Apocalypse


Oscar Isaac strikes a dramatic pose.

Oscar Isaac strikes a dramatic pose.

(2016) Superhero (20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Lucas Till, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Lana Condor, Olivia Munn, Warren Scherer, Hugh Jackman, Monique Ganderton, Rochelle Kooky, Ally Sheedy. Directed by Bryan Singer

 

Human history is full of the strong oppressing the weak. Sometimes the strong are that in name only; they have strength only in the will to seize power and wield it. Other times they have the strength of numbers. Power can come from many different sources.

In the world of X-Men: Apocalypse the oppressed are feared by the oppressors. Mutants are powerful but they are few in numbers; it is the non-mutants who fear what they can potentially do. Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy), once the most powerful telepathic mind in the world, sees things differently. He sees a world in which mutants and normals live harmoniously, in which mutants use their powers to protect those who have none. He’s established a school to teach young mutants to fulfill exactly that purpose.

It is a different world than what Magneto (Fassbender) sees but with good reason. The Master of Magnetism is powerful, but was unable to prevent the deaths of his parents at Auschwitz, nor could he protect his wife and daughter while he lived in anonymous exile in Poland (methinks Magneto should stay away from Poland, where Auschwitz is also located, because horrible things seem to happen to him there). He is ripe for being swayed over to the dark side of things.

Enter Apocalypse (Isaac). He may or may not have been the first Mutant, but he is certainly among the most powerful. In his day, he had been worshipped as a God and in fact ruled Egypt as a living God, a despotic tyrant who was eventually ambushed by those who opposed his rule and buried under the rubble of a collapsed pyramid, knocked unconscious before he could change his psyche to the body of a younger man (which is how he remains immortal). His long slumber has been interrupted by misguided followers of his cult and now he’s back in the world, and he doesn’t like what he sees.

In his day, the mutants ruled the normals but that’s not what is happening in the 1980s. It is the height of the cold war and new wave, an era in which the mutants are regarded with suspicion after what happened in the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Apocalypse always has a personal guard of four powerful mutants whose powers are enhanced and in this case he chooses Storm (Shipp) with powers over the weather, Psylocke (Munn) who can hurl telepathic daggers and Angel (Hardy) with wings of steel that can hurl steel projectiles.

In the meantime, Mystique (Lawrence) has chosen to remain in her human form and is recruiting new mutants to the Xavier School, including the telepath Jean Grey (Turner) who has the potential to be even more powerful than Xavier himself, Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee) who can teleport and Scott Summers (Sheridan) who can shoot incredibly strong force bolts from his eyes. Along with Hank McCoy (Hoult) – the ever-loving Beast and resident scientist for the group – and Havok (Till), Summers’ brother whose force beams come out of his chest, and Quicksilver (Peters), a super-speedster, the school is full of very powerful and dangerous kids which attracts the attention of Col. Stryker (Helman) who has a mutant experiment of his own going at Alkili Lake.

Now we’re setting up a potential battle – Apocalypse who wants to destroy the world and repopulate it with mutants who would be the only ones strong enough to withstand the destruction, and Xavier who wants to save the world. Each has their own team; Apocalypse with the Four Horsemen, Xavier with the X-Men and they will duke it out with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Of course, the plot is fairly endemic to most superhero movies especially this year when it is the third of three different movies from three different studios all with superheroes battling one another. While critics have been decrying the similarity of the plots, there are subtle differences in each that for my money make them all different takes on a similar but not identical theme.

Here the theme has to do with the oppression of minorities and whether it is the responsibility of those with power to protect their own at the expense of everyone else, or to protect those who need it. The latter is a crucial question in the four color world of superheroes and one which does get repeated fairly regularly in the cinematic world of superheroes as well; as was said in a certain webslinger’s movie, with great power comes great responsibility.

As summer blockbusters go, it has plenty of spectacular action and amazing visuals which is what one looks for in a hot weather diversion. Unfortunately, the movie also has what has proven to be a superhero movie killer on many occasions recently; too many characters. I only touched on the main characters here and there were many others involved in the film, like Wolverine (Jackman) who shows up in a memorable cameo appearance in Jackman’s penultimate appearance as the character.

This is based on a classic comic story arc which is one I was actually familiar with as it was written while I was still collecting comics. The Apocalypse of the comic books was, in my opinion, much more of a villain than he is here and certainly much more dangerous, even though Isaac turns in a pretty strong performance despite the layers and layers of make-up. The Apocalypse of the comics was simply evil and didn’t really have an agenda beyond ruling the world; here, he has a philosophy which is supposed to give him motivation but ends up as unnecessary clutter. There’s a lot of that here, including the Wolverine appearance.

The producers of the X-Men franchise have said that this will conclude the trilogy started in X-Men: First Class in 2011. They have established several new young versions of some of the more beloved characters in the franchise. Where they will go with them is anybody’s guess but you can be sure there will be plenty more X-Men action coming in the future from Fox, for whom this franchise has been a gold mine.

This isn’t the weakest entry in the X-Men franchise but it’s certainly not the strongest. I think some judicious trimming of the number of characters as well as the plot itself (the movie clocks in at well over two hours) might have been beneficial to the final product. Singer has always had the best grip on the X-Men universe of any of the directors who have tackled it. Hopefully whomever inherits the reins will improve on this film which is merely decent.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the visuals are spectacular. It does give the First Class trilogy a nice definite conclusion.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels bloated and overpopulated with characters. Apocalypse felt far more dangerous in the comic book edition than he did here.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of superhero action and destruction, some brief strong language and a scene that is sexually suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Oscar Isaac’s voice was recorded with three different types of microphones, and then melded together to create the voice of Apocalypse.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fantastic Four
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Keeper of Darkness

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made


Dr. Jones, I presume.

Dr. Jones, I presume.

(2016) Documentary (Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Stompolos, Jayson Lamb, John Rhys-Davies, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles, Chris Gore, Kurt Zala, Casey Dillard, Rob Fuller, Ryan Pierini, Scott Lionberger, Ernest Cline, Tim League, John E. Hudgens, Karl Preusser, Mark Spain, Guy Klender, James Donald, Michael Mobley, Angela Rodriguez. Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen

Florida Film Festival 2016

The dreams of our childhood are often set aside in favor of those things that as adults we are required to do; to create a family and home of our own, to earn a living, to raise children. Those dreams don’t die completely; they stay with us, often as regrets which is what unanswered dreams generally become.

For a trio of boys in Mississippi in 1981, that dream was the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark. This tribute to the serial pulp adventures of the 1930s really captured the imagination of these boys and inspired them. For Eric Zala and Chris Stompolos, the solution was simple; make their own version of Raiders but shot for shot like the one Spielberg directed. And, that summer, they set about doing it themselves.

For seven more summers and several winter breaks as well, they did just that. Stompolos, who played Indiana Jones, aged from age 12 to 19 onscreen; Zala (who played Belloq and was director for the venture) went from 11 to 18. They were joined by Jayson Lamb who also stayed mainly behind the camera and did much of the special effects.

They were aided by many adults who gave the kids serious leeway, allowing them to follow their dream although later on when some saw the results of their labors accused their mothers of “bad parenting,” particularly in lieu that one fiery scene set in the Nepalese bar owned by Marion Ravenwood that they created in the basement of the Zala home nearly burned the house down.

What is striking is how the boys, with zero filmmaking experience, managed to think outside the box to make things work. For example, they substituted the family dog in place of the “Sieg Heil” spider monkey that is used in the Cairo scenes. The boys were too young to drive in the truck chase, so they got someone to lend them a truck without an engine and had someone who could drive (a parental chaperon as it were) haul the truck (you can see the hauling  vehicle in a couple of shots).

The boys eventually got every scene in the movie filmed but one – the scene after Indie and Marion escape the Well of Souls and stop a Flying Wing airplane from carrying the Ark to Berlin, blowing up the plane and creating general mayhem in the process. At seven years in and their friendships frayed to the breaking point (Jayson had already left the project), they decided to call it quits.

But the idea stayed with them and it bothered Zala and Stompolos to a lesser extent that they’d pulled the plug so close to completing their dream. They took the footage they had and edited it together, made a videotape of it, staged a world premiere in their hometown and went on with their lives.

The funny thing about dreams is that sometimes they refuse to die on their own. A copy of the tape made its way to actor/director Eli Roth of the Hostel franchise. He was blown away by what he saw and arranged to have the movie shown during a meal break at Harry (Ain’t It Cool News) Knowles’ annual birthday celebration and film festival the Butt-Numb-a-Thon at the Drafthouse Theater in Austin – Tim League, the influential owner of the Drafthouse was also in attendance.

The audience was so enraptured by the adaptation that they booed when the projectionist stopped the film to prepare for the world premiere showing of a Peter Jackson Hobbit film, no less – and gave the film a three minute standing ovation. League and Knowles were both impressed. The buzz about the movie began to circulate and a cult film was born.

Eventually word got back to Zala and Stompolos, both living separate lives and the two old friends decided to get the band back together again and raised a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of the final scene in their hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Even so, it wasn’t easy; Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and the very pyrotechnic-heavy scene proved more difficult to stage than they’d anticipated, even with a professional pyrotechnician calling the shots.

There is plenty of footage from the Adaptation as well as outtakes and interviews (I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Adaptation twice, once in the backyard of a friend’s house and the second time as part of a Raiders! Event at the Enzian) and while it’s true that the footage of the Adaptation is crude, you do get a sense of the love and care that went into it. Because of copyright laws, it is next to impossible to view the Adaptation theatrically, but it can be done so if you’re interested, contact your local art house theater and have them look into it.

The movie is about the heart and soul of a dream. Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who has distinguished himself as being one of the most clueless film reviewers in the country, sniffed that the venture is like “rewriting Moby Dick in crayon.” For one thing, he oversimplifies the difference between copying and adapting. The boys with no training at all proved to be resourceful and persistent, both traits that should be encouraged rather than torn down. They showed their love for a film that by paying tribute to it, putting their own stamp on it at the same time. Both of them, since this documentary was completed, have formed a production company of their own and quite frankly I’m eager to see what they turn out next (Lamb also works in the industry). Either way, this is the kind of movie that may inspire others to follow their dream, be it remaking a beloved movie shot for shot or making a movie of their own.

REASONS TO GO: One of those movies that sneak up on you and lift your spirits. Fascinating story.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will get why this story is inspiring.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zala for awhile lived and worked in Orlando for EA Sports as a game developer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: March of the Living

Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler


The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

(2015) Documentary (Playland) Tim McVey, Dwayne Richard, Tom Asaki, Walter Day, Enrico Zanetti, Joshua Berman, Rick Fothergill, Mark Hoff, Joshua Berman, Mary Richard, Glen Thomas, Gene Lewin, Rick Carter, John Jaugilas, Patrick O’Malley, Todd Whitsel, Brendan Becker, Mike Currence, Billy Mitchell, Richie Knucklez, Tina McVey, Sylvia Zanetti Eryn Rea, Tiana Whitley. Directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are those who through luck, determination or what have you manage to accomplish something impressive early on in their lives. That is truly awesome – but then what is left for the rest of your life?

Tim McVey was just an ordinary Iowa teen in Ottumwa back in 1983. Ottumwa’s claim to fame was at the time the Twin Galaxies arcade, one of the most prestigious in the world. In the vast number of arcade games that Twin Galaxies had to offer was an obscure game called Nibbler. Based roughly on the early computer game Snake, Nibbler basically was about navigating a snake through a maze, consuming jewels as you go along. With each jewel the snake consumes, it gets bigger. The trick is to consume all the jewels in the maze without running the snake into itself.

Nibbler’s claim to fame was that it was the first arcade game to flip over at a billion points, allowing gamers to score hitherto unachievable scores. However, getting to a billion was no joke; it would take roughly two days of continuous game play to do it. Part of the strategy is to build up enough extra lives to allow bathroom breaks and refreshment breaks, but the longer the gamer goes without sleep the slower the reflexes become, the foggier the mind becomes and the harder it is overall to maintain the pace that got them close to the mark.

No other gamer in no other game had achieved a billion points – but Tim McVey did it in 1983 at the age of 17. Even competitive gamers, a sport which was just in its embryonic stage at the time, hadn’t done it, largely because Nibbler wasn’t all that popular a game. So when an unassuming Iowa kid did what no other gamer in history had done, it was a big deal. McVey got the key to the city, a Tim McVey day in Ottumwa and a Nibbler arcade game to bring home of his very own.

Years went by. McVey moved on and got married, getting a job as a machinist for a farm machinery manufacturer. It seemed very much like his biggest claim to fame was behind him. Then came the news that Enrico Zanetti, an Italian gamer, claimed to have broken McVey’s all time high score eight months after McVey had established it. While the feat hadn’t been confirmed, to McVey’s mind his single biggest accomplishment in life had been challenged. He had to go back to Nibbler and take it on again, and not just break the billion but set a new high score that would stand for all time.

As it turned out, McVey wasn’t the only one after that high mark. Dwayne Richard, a Canadian gamer, had the same intention. Richard, something of a bad boy, became McVey’s friendly competition. While the two had mutual respect, both McVey and Richard were hardcore competitors who both wanted the ultimate title for themselves. A grudge match was set for MAGfest in Alexandria, Virginia. But the story wouldn’t end there.

While the eight bit graphics that make up the opening sequence and the animations that serve as flashbacks throughout the movie have their charm, it’s the story of McVey that is the heart and soul of this movie. He is a genuinely sweet guy who you root for instinctively from the get-go. Even Richard, who is ostensibly the antagonist here, isn’t really a bad guy; while he is all bravado and bluster, there is enough decency about him that means he gets to keep his Canadian citizenship. I mean, I understand that being an arsehole can get your Canadian citizenship revoked.

Unlike a lot of modern documentaries which seem to be about cramming as many interviews in as they can, this is more centered around footage that the filmmakers shot during McVey’s quest to regain his record, even though he technically still held it. McVey was forced to confront the reality that he was no longer a teen and the stamina to stand and work a joystick for thirty plus hours was simply not as easy to come by anymore. There is a tendency to dismiss gamers as couch potatoes with overdeveloped thumb muscles, but for this kind of gaming, there is a certain amount of physical stamina needed to put up with the demands necessary. Who knew that gaming required that kind of endurance, particularly when there’s no pause button.

There’s plenty to like here; many critics (and viewers no doubt) have compared it to Seth Gordon’s seminal videogame documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I’m not sure it’s at quite that level of entertainment but Gordon’s opus has the advantage of having been first, but also of having a much more familiar game for most viewers. Although McVey grouses that people continually look at him weird when he mentions the name of the game, there is the reality that not many arcades carried it even back in the day. Mine certainly didn’t. To my knowledge, I’ve never played it whereas most gamers who are old enough to drink can say they’ve played some version of Donkey Kong.

The movie does go on for a little longer than I would have liked; the whole MAGfest sequence could easily have been summed up in a thirty second animation for example and was somewhat anti-climactic. Still, the movie does make you leave the final credits with a good feeling and not many movies can truly say that. Generally, any movie in which the underdog does something nobody else has ever done is going to be a welcome addition to my viewing list.

REASONS TO GO: Nice wry tone throughout. Graphics and animation both suit subject matter well.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MAGfest stands for Music and Gaming Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Donald Cried

Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

McFarland, USA


Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

(2015) True Sports Drama (Disney) Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Diana Maria Riva, Omar Leyva, Valente Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher, Martha Higareda, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Ben Bray, Vanessa Martinez, Adriana Diaz Chapa. Directed by Niki Caro

The American dream is a finicky thing. We all want to achieve it, but there are places in this country where just surviving day to day is about all anyone can hope for. When that happens, we must learn to rely on each other to be our own safety net.

McFarland in California’s San Joaquin Valley is such a place. Made up mostly of farm workers (mostly of Mexican descent) on nearby agribusiness, the town touts itself as America’s Fruit Basket. The reality however is that there are few services and almost no money for what they do have.

Jim White (Costner) is coaching football at a suburban high school when he gets into an altercation with a spoiled brat of a player which ends up with a frustrated White throwing a shoe at the locker which then takes an unintended ricochet and hitting the player. Adios, tony suburban high school job and bienvenidos best job that he can get, in the middle of nowhere where the only restaurant in town has a six item menu and none of them are burgers.

White feels like a fish out of water and his family are also feeling like aliens. They are awakened every morning by a rooster crowing and none of them speak any amount of Spanish. He’s the new P.E. coach at McFarland high, as well as the assistant football coach and he’s not even that when he refuses to put a player in who is exhibiting signs of a concussion and the head coach demands that Principal Camillo (V. Rodriguez) remove the prickly assistant coach, which Camillo does although he can’t really afford to fire him, since they have no substitutes or back-ups. So White continues as the P.E. teacher as well as a life sciences teacher.

One of the things that White notices is that some of his kids – most of whom get up at 4 AM to go out and work in the fields before coming to school for 8 hours and then returning to the fields until dark – are incredibly fast and durable owing to that many of them run from school to the fields miles away every day and have been since they were ten or twelve years old. With the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body of high school athletics in the Golden State, initiating a statewide cross country championship (this takes place in 1987 just for the record) White has a brilliant idea; establish a cross country team, do well enough to get some attention and then get a job offer in some civilized suburban community where he and his long-suffering wife (Bello) and kids, young Jamie (Fisher) and soon-to-graduate Julie (Saylor) belong.

He recruits a team by hook or by crook and ends up with mercurial Thomas Valles (Pratts), the swiftest of the bunch; Johnny Sameniego (Duran), an easygoing sort; David (R. Martinez) and Damacio (Aguero) Diaz as well as their chunky but all-heart brother Danny Diaz (R. Rodriguez) and lady’s man Jose Cardenas (Ortiz). They have raw talent but not a lot of technique or discipline – nor a lot of desire in what they consider to be a foolish pursuit. Cross country is, after all, a sport for prep schools and rarefied air.

What they do have however is a solid work ethic, ingrained in them by their hours in the fields, and a sense of family and community. In fact the latter is central to the existence of McFarland – everybody in McFarland is family, to the point that Jim’s wife is moved to say “No place has ever felt like home to me as much as this one.”

Still, as the team begins to get some success, White begins to attract the attention of schools like Palo Alto High, who have a large budget and a history of winning. With the state championships within reach, will Jim commit to his runners the same way they’ve committed to him or will he move on and get the kind of lifestyle he always dreamed of?

This could easily have been just another sports underdog movie and there are always a few of them every year. Disney seems to be the most active purveyor of them, and in all fairness they have brought it down to a science. There are some formulaic aspects to most of these movies – the introduction, the first failed attempts, the coming together, the falling apart, the reuniting and the triumph – and some of those are present here. When you’re watching one, you know intellectually that the team/individual is going to triumph. Nobody, after all, wants to go to a movie to see someone fail.

Therefore it’s the journey to that triumph that makes these sorts of movies successful and the reason McFarland USA succeeds is that the filmmakers in the person of director Niki (Whale Rider) Caro from New Zealand who shows a surprising empathy for the Mexican-American culture. We are shown how they support one another and the innate friendliness and warmth of the people. Sure, there’s crime (there is a scene where White mistakes a car club for a Latino gang and later a real gang takes on the car club) but there always is where there is poverty and there’s plenty of that to go around in McFarland.

Although the racial aspect is played up, the filmmakers surprisingly kind of gloss over the racism directed to the McFarland team (one elitist runner makes a few cracks but is shut down by one of the runners for McFarland early in the movie) and towards the McFarland community in general; I would have liked to have seen that avenue explored a little more but I’m not surprised that it wasn’t; Disney is sensitive about such things and tend to turn a blind eye even in films in which those elements are a central feature. The Mouse, after all, prefers a world where such ugliness doesn’t exist.

But exist it does, so you’ll have to just assume that the team endured rougher treatment than is shown here. Generally speaking, the film isn’t about that in any case – the movie celebrates the sense of community that the Mexican-Americans of McFarland have created.

Costner tends to thrive on these sorts of roles and he does so here, giving White a kind of craggy resourcefulness and a willingness to learn about the culture into which he’s been thrust (he goes out on a Saturday morning to pick cabbage with his students in order to experience what they’re going through). The more he bonds with his team, the more about the culture he becomes involved with.  After missing his daughter’s birthday dinner, he throws her a quinceanera, a Mexican celebration of a young girl’s 15th birthday which is a really big deal in that culture. It’s one of the movie’s most charming scenes.

Most of the Hispanic cast is solid, with Mora getting plaudits as a friendly store owner and Leyva as a skeptical dad who wants to pull his sons from the team – every moment they’re practicing with the team they’re not working in the fields and that means money not going into the family’s pocket or more to the point, food not going onto their table. Riva plays his wife, one of those no-nonsense practical Mexican wives that in Southern California are as common as palm trees and as beautiful in their own way as the Pacific.

Some critics have accused the movie about being patronizing towards Hispanics in that the movie portrays White as the unifying force that brings the team together and inspires them to win, sort of a “they couldn’t have done it without him great white hope” sort of thing. I didn’t see it that way; for one thing, the reality of the situation is that this predominantly Hispanic high school did have a white cross country coach and he did lead them to an amazing run of success, but the movie isn’t about a white guy showing the Hispanics how to do it – if anything, he learns more from them than they do from him.

 

I found myself drawn in by the film. Sure it has all the cliches of a typical underdog true life sports movie, but then again I’m a sucker for those cliches so it doesn’t bother me quite so much. What I really liked was the sense of family and community spirit that the movie celebrates. While I can’t say for certain that every Hispanic community is like that, I know that they do continue to exist and I, for one, wouldn’t mind living in that sort of community myself.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely promotes a sense of family and community. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit formulaic. Could have tackled racism aspect harder.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language, brief violence and some thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner attended high school for one year in Visalia, only 40 miles north of McFarland.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Maps to the Stars