Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.


No matter what the pose is, hip hop star M.I.A. is a controversial figure.

(2018) Music Documentary (CineReach/Abramorama) Maya Arulpragasam, Diplo, Ben Bronfman, Kala Arulpragasam, Spike Jonze, Arular Arulpragasam, Sugu Arulpragasam, Kali Arulpragasam, Justine Frischmann, Nick Huggett, Lynn Hirschberg. Directed by Steve Loveridge

 

In this age where everything is divisive, there are few more polarizing figures than hip-hop superstar M.I.A. To some, she is a terrorist supporter (her father was one of the founders of the Tamil Tigers who fought against oppression of her ethnic group in Sri Lanka). To others, she is a hero standing up for the victims of genocide in her native Sri Lanka. For others, she’s a brilliant musician, combining elements of world music and hip-hop. To some, she’s a dilettante who lives in luxury while railing against poverty.

The truth is that M.I.A., born Matangi Arulpragasam but nicknamed Maya early on in her life, is all of those things. She has always been her own person, refusing to be put in a box. As a child her mother and remaining children (she talks early on how two of her six brothers were killed in Sri Lanka) immigrated to England where she encountered racism and abuse for her refugee status. She spent much of her early life, like most teens, trying to figure out what her place in the world was and early on determined not to be pigeonholed.

Music has always been a refuge for her and although she went to art school with the intention of being a filmmaker and indeed started out making music videos for Elastica and other bands of the era (she and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann became close friends) it was her mash-ups of various beats and ethnic sounds that caught the attention of XL Recordings and with an in-yo-face performance style and unforgettable songs became one of the biggest stars in the world.

She has never been shy about expressing herself; invited by the NFL to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl, she expressed her disillusionment at America by flipping the bird to the cameras for which she was sued by the NFL which was eventually settled. A crude gesture, sure but that’s M.I.A. all over.

Loveridge utilized old home movies and videos (as a teen she was a compulsive recorder of life events) as well as behind the scenes access to create a portrait of a very complex and often difficult woman. She has a voice and a platform and something to say and her activism is on display in an often hagiographic documentary but at the same time she really doesn’t give a rat’s behind what the world thinks about her – yet she seems driven to having as much exposure as humanly possible. Is it so she can get her message across? Maybe…it’s hard to know sometimes what’s hype and what’s real.

My big issue with the documentary is that it jumps all over the place, both in a chronological sense and a thematic sense. At one point we see her with one fiancée, then in a scene or two later she has a different fiancée and is pregnant without any transition. It’s jarring and while I don’t think we necessarily have to delve that much into her personal romantic life, there should be some flow there and that’s what this documentary lacks.

The movie will be making an appearance locally on October 1st at the Enzian Theater for their South Asian Film Festival and while the movie is British in origin, certainly the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka is a big part of this film as is the music of the Tamil culture. What you end up thinking about M.I.A. – disingenuous huckster using her message as publicity for her musical career, or committed and passionate activist desperately trying to bring the plight of the Tamil people to the mainstream Western media – is up to you. I’m not here to review her life, only her documentary and I find the film massively flawed, although the story of her life is compelling enough. Unlike documentaries however, real life doesn’t get the opportunity to be fixed in the editing bay, something this film desperately needed. M.I.A. seems to have done better in that regard than the film about her did.

REASONS TO GO: The activism of M.I.A. is very much to be admired.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary isn’t very well-organized; at times it feels like it’s jumping back and forth all over the map.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loveridge met M.I.A. at film school; this is his first documentary feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Dresser

HappyThankYouMorePlease


HappyThankYouMorePlease

Malin Akerman demonstrates the proper “crazy eyes” technique.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Anchor Bay) Josh Radnor, Malin Akerman, Kate Mara, Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale, Pablo Schreiber, Michael Algieri, Bram Barouh, Mary Elena Ramirez, Peter Scanavino, Fay Wolf, Dana Barron, Sunah Bilsted. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

There comes a point in all of our lives when we turn from twenty-somethings to thirty-somethings. It’s a bit of a milestone and in many ways it’s not that easy. For most of us, it’s a milestone from which we graduate from being “young people” to being “adults.”

For Sam (Radnor) and his friends, that change isn’t coming easily. Most of Sam’s circle are aspiring artists; none have really accomplished much in the arts to be honest. Sam has written a novel but not gotten it published although, with a title like The Other Great Thing About Vinyl there’s perhaps a clue why not. Sam is in fact on his way to see a publisher when he spies a kid hanging around the subway.

Sam senses there’s something wrong and tries to help. It turns out the kid, Rasheen (Algieri) was left there. Sam tries to deliver him to the authorities but when that doesn’t work out, he decides that Rasheen can stay with him until Sam can figure something out. Sam is apparently not the sharpest blade in the shed.

He has plenty of competition for that though. Mary Catherine (Kazan), who is Sam’s cousin,  is also a painter in the village – no, she doesn’t paint houses – who loves New York, even though for what she makes she can barely afford it. In fact, she probably wouldn’t be able to were it not for her filmmaker boyfriend Charlie (Schreiber) who has at least been working regularly; now he has received a job offer in Los Angeles, a lucrative one. He wants to go; she wants to stay, showing the kind of L.A. Hate-on only a New Yorker could generate, as well as that insular feeling that the Apple is the only city in the world that those Manhattan dwellers sometimes get. Their relationship has reached a crossroads and could go down either road – separately or together.

Annie (Akerman) has Alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss – in Annie’s case, complete hair loss. She wears an African head scarf to disguise this. She wonders if she can ever be truly loved – but then her taste in men is disastrous. Most of the men she chooses are borderline abusive and are only interested in one part of her body (and it isn’t her hair or lack thereof). A lawyer in her office whom she refers to as Sam #2 (Hale) is sweet on her, but his attempts at courtship are awkward and occasionally creepy. Still, he seems to be a nice enough guy but he’s simply not cool enough for her.

In the meantime, Sam #1 has become fixated on a waitress/barmaid named Mississippi (Mara) who is also a singer and is working hard to break into the music business but until then is waiting tables. She brings much stability into his life, although when she finds out the truth about Rasheen (whom she assumed was Sam’s biological progeny) becomes rightfully concerned as to whether Sam is the right guy for her.

Radnor also wrote and directed this, his first feature film. He is best known for playing Ted on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” In some ways, the characters here are sitcom-like, more caricature than character. Think of it as a hipster sitcom.

Although this is essentially an ensemble film, these are not interweaving stories but part of the same one. Akerman is a fine actress who sometimes gets parts that showcase her abilities; this isn’t one of them. Nevertheless, she elevates it, turning the role of Annie who has elements of self-pity woven into her personality into less of a whiner and more into a compelling character you want to know better. That’s a testament to her talents, and her performance is far and away the best thing going for the film.

Elsewhere, the performances range from marginally okay to satisfactory. Nobody disgraces themselves here but other than Akerman nobody else rises above either. For the most part this is pleasant but unmemorable. The title refers to something an Indian cabbie tells Annie – I’m paraphrasing, but essentially that it is necessary to go about life being grateful for the things that make you happy, and to ask the universe for more of those things. It gives the film a kind of optimism that is not that unusual in indie films these days (you want pessimism, see a 70s film).

However, also the norm in indie films is a focus on a hip New York lifestyle that as depicted the people involved couldn’t possibly afford to live. Sam, for example, has no apparent income and yet lives in a nice apartment in the Village. While not science fiction per se, it does enter that fantasyland of indie films that we have just learned to accept as part of the reality of movies – like the characters always get a parking spot in front of the place they want to go, for example. Just accept and move on.

The movie is charming enough to be palatable while you’re watching it, but won’t stick around in your memory much more than it takes to find something else to do. The film’s message on finding the things that truly make you happy isn’t a particularly revolutionary one nor is it told in a particularly revolutionary manner. It’s just a decent first feature for someone who shows enough promise that I look forward to seeing where he goes from here as a filmmaker and actor.

WHY RENT THIS: Akerman elevates her material. Some moments of insight here and there.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little heavy on the indie cliché. A bit unfocused in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of bad language here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Radnor wrote the film while working on the first and second seasons of “How I Met Your Mother.” He then spent the next two years acquiring financing, writing revisions and casting actors in their roles before shooting in July 2009, just three months (including six weeks of pre-production) after getting the financial backing.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on music composer Jaymay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $216,110 on an unreported production budget; the film broke even at best (but probably didn’t).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Garden State

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Men in Black III

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)


Broken Embraces

An embrace to take them away from the hideousness of the decor, at least for a little while.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portilla, Tamar Novas, Kiti Manver, Jose Luis Garcia, Chus Lampreave, Lola Duenas, Angela Molina, Ruben Ochandiano. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

We are all of us the sum total of all the people we have been in our lives. That which we are is a direct result of that which we were. In some cases, what we were is so far from what we are now that they are almost different lives.

Harry Caine – a clever play of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime (The Third Man) and Citizen Kane – is the pseudonym that Mateo Blanco (Homar) has taken. Blanco was once one of the world’s leading film directors, but a tragic auto accident robbed him of his sight. He is still a successful screenwriter, living in a Madrid apartment cared for by longtime personal assistant Judit Garcia (Portilla) and her sweet son Diego (Novas). Judit has deeper feelings for Mateo than just being his assistant, incidentally. This is neither here nor there in terms of the plot; it’s just the way it is.

Mateo although middle aged and blind, is still a bit of a playa – he just uses his disability to help get attractive women in the sack. He has evidently always been a ladies’ man. One day, while Judit is out of town on business, Mateo is approached by a young man calling himself Ray X (Ochandiano) who wants Mateo to write a film with a very specific plot. Mateo is intrigued until he realizes who Ray X is – and what he really wants. Diego, who hasn’t a clue, asks Mateo to tell him. Mateo gives him a story, the defining story of his life and of the last movie he ever directed, “Girls and Suitcases.”

It was the early 90s and Mateo was on top of his game. One of his producers, Ernesto Martel (Gomez), a wealthy industrialist arranges to have his mistress Lena (Cruz) granted a screen test. Mateo isn’t expecting much but does it to keep his investor happy. Instead, he is completely entranced by this beautiful woman whom he falls deeply in love with.

Soon, Martel begins to suspect that his mistress is cheating on him and sics his son on them to film everything they do, ostensibly in the mask of a documentary filmmaker capturing the making of the movie. And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Martel’s son is none other than Ray X. Soon, the tension begins to escalate and Martel begins to show signs that he is willing to do anything to keep his mistress as his own – up to and including murder.

This isn’t typical of an Almodovar movie. For one thing, the story is told much more conventionally than in most of his films. However, his fondness for combining genres – in this case suspense, romance, film noir and even comedy – is very much in evidence here. This is the most Hitchcock-like of Almodovar’s movies; I can certainly see the master of suspense making a movie like that were he alive today, although knowing Hitchcock he’d have cast a blonde (someone like Naomi Watts) in the lead role.

Almodovar always seems to bring out the best in Penelope Cruz and this emerges as another great performance by the Spanish actress. She is certainly a victim in many ways in this movie, but she is also a victimizer, one who wraps men around her small fingers and uses her sexuality to get what she wants. When she finally finds a soulmate, she finds herself in a dilemma of her own making; only she knows what Martel is capable of and she is absolutely terrified.

I also like Homar, a veteran Catalonian actor from Barcelona (and who previously worked with Almodovar on Bad Education) who bears a slight resemblance to Kelsey Grammer here. He has two different roles to play; one the confident director, the other the embittered blind writer. The differences are subtle, but Homar pulls it off nicely.

Almodovar is fond of bright colors, and there are a whole lot of them here – apparently to his mind the Spain of the 1990s looked a lot like the Britain of the 1970s. There are a lot of reds in the movie and I don’t mean commies or retired assassins. I mean the shade of red; it is noticeable in nearly every scene.

People looking for Almodovar here will see glimpses of him but this is perhaps his most mainstream movie ever. People looking for a conventional suspense movie will finds glimpses of one but this is a bit on the art house side. I can say it is compellingly written, with well-drawn characters and an ending that while it doesn’t come from left field, at least is satisfactory enough. I’ve never been Almodovar’s biggest fan, but if you’re like me you might find this movie a bit more palatable than some of his other films which tend to be quirkier than this.

WHY RENT THIS: A very well-made thriller, not to Hitchcock-like standards but certainly in the style thereof. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very different from Almodovar’s other movies; his fans may not care for it as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, drugs and a little bit of rock and roll. There’s also some off-camera spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth collaboration between Cruz and Almodovar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fabulous feature that simply captures Almodovar directing Cruz and how the two have developed a kind of cinematic shorthand in their working relationship. There is also a short film ostensibly directed by Mateo Blanco.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 127 Hours