The Wolfpack


Tougher than the rest.

Tougher than the rest.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krisna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Naryana Angulo, Visnu Angulo, Oscar Angulo, Susanne Angulo. Directed by Crystal Moselle

Sometimes we all want to shut the world out. Just let it go on doing what it does outside the safety and security of our homes; we just need a little break. What would you do, though, if you were forced to live that way – isolated from the world, limited in contact to a few outings a year and from what you see from movies?

That’s just how the seven kids of the Angulo family were raised. In a government housing complex in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Oscar and Susanne Angulo chose to keep their children inside the apartment day in and day out, refusing to allow them to venture outdoors other than on special occasions. Sometimes the boys get to leave their apartment three or four times a year; some years, they don’t make it out at all. Oscar, a Peruvian Hare Krishna, was unrealistically paranoid about the outside world and wanted to protect his children from it. His wife went along, at first because she too was concerned but later because she was intimidated by her husband.

That leaves the boys to figure things out on their own. Against all odds, they turn out to be articulate, congenial and intelligent boys, much of which is a testament to the homeschooling they received from their mom. All of them have been given names from Sanskrit legends and mythology and none of them have been allowed to cut their hair when we first meet them, their locks cascading down to their waists. They have the distinctive Andean features of their father, but none of them seem disposed to like him very much.

And with good reason; he’s not really a likable guy. For much of the movie he sits in his room, isolating himself from his family and only coming out on occasion, rarely seeing much of the family initially. He’s often compared to a jailer and the home to a prison which seems accurate enough. Somewhat unbelievably, as part of his world view, he refuses to work because doing so plays into the hands of the industrialist elite, so he and his seven children live off of government aid programs and the stipend they get for Susanne’s homeschooling.

Yet they have a library of (they claim) 5,000 films on VHS and DVD which I suspect is an exaggeration; I didn’t see any sort of storage in the small four-bedroom apartment that would begin to hold that many films. Moselle chooses not to delve into harder questions about how the family subsists; this isn’t that kind of documentary.

What is obvious is that the boys (and their mom, who’s as much a victim as they are) love each other fiercely and look out for each other. When Mukunda, then 15, starts venturing out on his own without permission, it begins a chain of events in the household as the boys start to question the wisdom of their father’s decisions and stand up to his edicts. By the end of the film, Mukunda has moved out, the others have also started going out on their own and one has even found himself a girlfriend. In short, they’re acting like adolescent boys moving into manhood and even Oscar seems disposed to letting nature take its course.

This is a story that is likely to keep the audience engaged throughout; the boys are terrific subjects and while one is prone to continue asking oneself “How could this happen?” Unfortunately, the filmmakers sabotage their own story in the editing process. The interviews by the filmmakers are interwoven with home video from the family; for recreation, the boys recreate their favorite movies on video, allowing them to enter the worlds that the movies have created for them, so with home-made props they make startlingly clever and inventive recreations and at the film’s end, an original movie of their own.

The problem is that there is no context here; we just get the family’s viewpoint and really don’t get anything else to support or oppose it. We are told that some of the boys are seeing therapists; we don’t get an interview with any sort of expert to talk about what sorts of issues the boys could be facing. That kind of testimony would have only augmented the film.

Not only that and even more egregiously, the interviews bounce around in time; we are never really sure when in the process the interviews are taking place and only near the end when some of the boys defiantly get their hair cut do we realize we are looking at more recent footage. It’s frustrating for the viewer in that a story that should be fairly linear jumps around; there are references to somewhat important events but only one (an incident in which the police broke down the door on suspicion that there were weapons in the apartment when it was just the boys making a movie that involved prop guns) is ever explained or discussed.

The Angulo boys (their sister is developmentally disabled) are slowly integrating themselves into the world and reportedly five of the six are no longer on speaking terms with their father. We don’t hear much from Oscar, other than a kind of half-handed shrug that he made a few mistakes. There are intimations that he is alcoholic and physically abusive, although nothing is really discussed overtly; the boys refer to it, but there is no follow-up.

The movie is meant to be inspiring and it is. We see the boys on a trip to a rural apple orchard and pumpkin patch and their wonder at seeing the countryside firsthand is joyful. We also see the dynamics have changed within the family; Oscar is walking hand in hand with Visnu and Susanne who want to see what her boys are up to. Oscar isn’t interested; finally Susanne breaks her hands free of Oscar and walks alone to find her boys, which she does. Visnu and Oscar are alone.

This is an interesting documentary that could have been a powerful, important documentary with some judicious editing and a little more focus. Moselle didn’t really delve into the more difficult subjects having to do with the imprisonment; how did child protective services not intervene on this case? And quite frankly, it’s likely they did and found that the children were well adjusted and normal in every respect, but with their own peculiar and creative view of the world outside their walls and concluded there was no need to change anything but we are left only with speculation. I can recommend it, but not as much as I would have liked to.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing story. The brothers are engaging, creative and charismatic.
REASONS TO STAY: Poorly edited. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moselle met Mukunda on one of his unauthorized jaunts outside and persuaded the family to let her have access so she could tell their story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cub

Transsiberian


Emily Mortimer's just hanging around.

Emily Mortimer's just hanging around.

(First Look) Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara, Ben Kingsley, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Stinton. Directed by Brad Anderson.

There is a romance about train travel. As we ride the rails, we are in a world of our own, looking out onto the world beyond. In this world, we meet our fellow travelers, not all of whom who are what they would seem to be at first glance.

Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer) are an American couple returning home after doing missionary work in China. They decide to take the long way home by taking the Transsiberian railway from China to Moscow.

At first, the trip seems to be a pleasant adventure as Jessie, a photographer, gets plenty of opportunity for fascinating snapshots while Roy gets to play tourist. Most of the train’s staff speaks no English and are as surly as only Russians can be, but that doesn’t diminish Roy’s enthusiasm as they travel through exotic-sounding places that they’d only read about in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky novels.

They meet another couple from the West; Carlos (Noriega), a carefree Spaniard, and Abby (Mara), his much-younger girlfriend. Where Carlos is worldly, Abby is naïve. They seem an odd couple, but then again so are Roy and Jessie. Roy is a straight-arrow churchgoer who is dedicated to charitable works and steam engines. He is child-like in many ways. Jessie has far more skeletons in her closet than most women her age. Wild in her younger years, she has a hard-fought sobriety that she clings to like a four-year-old girl clings to a favorite doll. She notices that Carlos is immediately attracted to her.

After a stop in Irkutsk, Jessie is alarmed to find that Roy has missed the train. Nobody has seen him and she can’t get in contact with him. She gets off at the next stop to wait for him and Carlos and Abby volunteer to wait with her. Carlos offers to show Jessie a great place to take some pictures. They hop on a bus and walk into the countryside after getting off in a small village. What happens next is…well, I won’t tell you to ruin the surprise.

As thrillers go, Hitchcock pretty much has the market cornered but director Anderson (The Machinist) shows a flair for the genre. He takes Hitchcockian elements from movies like The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest and gives them a nice twist. Add to this the bleak Russian landscapes and the grim, suspicious people who inhabit it and you have the makings of a nice thriller.

Harrelson has become a really solid character actor, and he imbues Roy with the kind of naïveté that would have made his “Cheers” character Woody Boyd seem sophisticated and urbane by comparison. Mortimer, a veteran British actress, also does a solid job as Jessie, who is trying to overcome a sordid past. Kingsley is alternately charming and menacing as a Russian narcotics detective who, like nearly everybody on the train, isn’t all that he seems to be. He’s one of the best actors in the world, and he shows why he gets that kind of consideration here.

The movie is spine-tingling and leaves you on the edge of your seat until the very last frame. Rather than attract big stars to the leading roles, Anderson wisely cast solid character actors, every one of whom are outstanding actors in their own right. He allows his cast and the stark landscape to capture the imagination and attention of the viewers. The result is one of the better independent thrillers to come down the pipeline in a very long time.

WHY RENT THIS: The bleak Siberian landscapes and a solid cast make this one of the most intense thrillers to come out of the independent circuit for quite some time. Sir Ben Kingsley brings charm and menace to his role. Writer/director Anderson takes Hitchcock’s plot elements and twists them into something special.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of sexual tension but no sex as such.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fairly graphic torture scene and a murder that may be a little too intense for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Brad Anderson’s first film was a horror short called Frankenstein’s Planet of Monsters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: (500) Days of Summer