The Most Unknown


Jennifer Macalady explores a new world.

(2018) Documentary (Motherboard/Abramorama) Jennifer Macalady, Davide D’Angelo, Axel Cleermans, Luke McKay, Rachel L. Smith, Victoria Orphan, Jun Ye, Anil Smith, Laurie R. Santos, Emelie Caspar, Brian Hedlund, Joseph Garguglia, Erik Cordes Chris Gates, Warrick Roseboom. Directed by Ian Cheney

 

These days, science isn’t the sexiest career choice as it was in the glory days of NASA or at the beginning of the computer revolution. Scientists are looked upon with suspicion and even disdain by much of the general American public, which says less about science and scientists than it does about America and the political landscape of the country at present.

But even though there are fewer college students going into science majors and careers in the sciences, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of excitement in the varied fields. This is something of a scientific experiment courtesy of the science journalism arm of Vice News, taking nine scientists, all of them working on some of the most basic and important questions ranging from what would life on other planets look like, how does the brain create consciousness, how are stars and planets created and what is the nature of time. Each scientist journeys to a different place in the world to meet up with a scientist in a different field; the resulting conversations are lively, and more importantly, accessible to the layman.

We are introduced to microbiologist Jennifer Macalady who journeys to Italy to meet physicist Davide D’Angelo who in turn heads to Brussels to meet cognitive psychologist Axel Cleermans. He heads to Nevada to meet up with astrobiologist Luke McKay. McKay’s assignment is to go to Hawaii to meet astrophysicist Rachel L. Smith. She gets to go on a deep dive off of Costa Rica with Cal Tech geobiologist Victoria Orphan to explore the life forms in a methane seepage. She in turn meets physicist Jun Ye in California to see the world’s most accurate atomic clock. He heads to the UK to meet neuroscientist Anil Smith who then heads to the office of cognitive psychologist Laurie R. Santos who eventually goes full circle to the Italian caves where Macalady is working.

Their enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring; their passion is undeniable but these are not movie scientists rocketing in all directions willy nilly without restraint; these are dedicated professionals who are absolutely obsessive about doing this right. They are methodical and patient, knowing that these questions won’t have easy answers and therefore will require time and determination in order to find te right direction. Some of them, like D’Angelo who is exploring the mystery of dark matter, isn’t sure that he’ll find answers in his own lifetime but he’s confident that answers will one day be found and that he will help find either by steering future researchers onto the right path or at least away from the wrong one.

Some of the images here are mind-blowing, including marine life that consumes methane and helps keep our planet’s atmosphere from becoming toxic or the glowing isotope that powers the atomic clock. The filmmakers go to all sorts of locations from the black rock desert of Nevada, the jungles of Costa Rica, the Atomium in Brussels and gleaming laboratories all over the world.

If there is a fault here, it is that there might be too many conversations plugged into an hour and a half. In some ways this might have worked better as an episodic series with a half hour to an hour devoted to each of the nine segments. However, if the only fault you can find in a documentary is that there isn’t enough of it, the filmmakers are doing something right.

This is a documentary that just might inspire you to take science more seriously, or at least appreciate the process more. Certainly these scientists are anything but arrogant, idiosyncratic or hidebound, nor are they loose cannons. They are fresh-faced, enthusiastic, passionate about their work and brilliant. They never talk down to each other nor the audience; the result is that you get caught up in their enthusiasm. Maybe I as a layman will never understand the importance of dark matter or be as passionate about cave slime but I can be very happy that somebody is.

The film is currently playing the Quad Theater in New York and will be making a limited run in various theaters and festivals around the country. In August, it will be heading to Netflix. There will also be additional material made available at that time. Keep an eye out for it – this is worth seeing both as an educational aid for young people and for adults who want to feel inspired by science.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most effective advertising for a career in science since Cosmos. Some of the footage is truly remarkable. The film looks into some really basic but important questions. The science is explained in a relatable manner.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t get as in-depth into the conversations as you might like.
FAMILY VALUES: Although there is brief mild profanity, this is truly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Macalady was also featured in the 2012 science documentary The Search for the Origin of Life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Grace Jones: Bloodfight + Bami

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Where to Invade Next


These chiefs could use a joint.

These chiefs could use a joint.

(2016) Documentary (Alamo Drafthouse) Michael Moore, Tim Walker, Krista Kiuru. Directed by Michael Moore

Michael Moore is one of those polarizing documentarians who has an agenda that occasionally plays fast and loose with facts and often takes things out of context. He infuriates the conservative electorate, many of whom characterize him as public enemy number one. For liberals while he is not necessarily a beloved figure, he is at least respected to a certain degree. With Moore’s films, you get pretty much what you expect.

His latest takes a look not so much at America but how improvements could be made, all of which are doable. Predictably, conservative film reviewers have ripped the movie a new one while those critics who already lean towards the left have sung the praises of the movie. Being of the latter persuasion, I find it hard not to add my voice to the liberal choir but I’m trying to be as objective as I can be.

Moore makes a valid point that we as Americans tend to accept without question that we live in the greatest nation on Earth, the best place to be. We are the land of the free, the home of the brave and we are the where the American Dream makes its residence – the philosophy, not the wrestler. In any case, we sometimes look at other countries ideas of doing things with a healthy dose of disdain.

That’s not always a wise thing. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas here, although many expressed in the film originated here in the States and have since been abandoned or ignored from the get-go. The conceit of the film is that we have fought a string of wars with almost nothing to show for it other than debt, dead soldiers and obscene profits for military suppliers.

So the Joint Chiefs of Staff have sent American gadfly Moore out to invade other countries, steal their best ideas, and bring them here to the United States to implement. The ideas vary from five weeks mandatory paid vacation in Italy (with an additional two weeks of government holidays) and five months of paid maternity leave, also mandatory (the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries on the planet that don’t have mandatory paid maternity leaves, although most companies offer roughly six weeks of paid maternity leave to their employees here). France has a one hour lunch for schoolchildren and serves lunches that are nutritionist-approved from fresh ingredients – on plates and in glasses – to students who learn to serve each other and conduct themselves with proper table manners. They also do it for less than American schools pay for their slop.

And the ideas keep on coming, from reduced school hours, virtually no homework and no standardized tests that have taken Finland from educational standing right about where the United States is to the top ranking of national education systems to Slovenia offering free college to any student who wants to attend there – including non-Slovenians (so many American students have flocked over there that some universities are offering as many as 150 different courses in English). Norway has a prison system in which violent offenders stay in compounds in which they are treated with dignity and given more or less free access anywhere inside the compound – although not out of it. The campus is beautiful and gives them amenities that you’d find at home – just not freedom. The recidivism rate is about 20% there, opposite our own 80%.

Portugal has eliminated drug use prison sentences and treats drug use as a health care issue rather than as a criminal law issue, lowering their drug use rate. Germany has begun teaching their children about the Holocaust and taking ownership rather than ignoring it and hiding it. Tunisia shows how women took to the streets following their 2011 revolution and told the Islamist government that they refused to allow their rights to be unprotected by their new constitution. The uprising was so massive that the government voluntarily stepped down.

Finally in Iceland, the only financial company that escaped the country’s massive 2007 financial meltdown was one founded and run by women. The financial recovery was largely spearheaded by the addition of women to corporate boards throughout the country. And unlike the United States, their equivalent of the Department of Justice investigated, prosecuted and convicted a number of financial executives for wrongdoing and fraud, basing their investigations largely on American policies during the savings and loan crisis.

I will admit that Moore has a tendency to present facts as he sees him and not necessarily as they are. Employee benefits in Italy, for example, are tremendous but unemployment is twice the rate it is here. However, unlike the conservative reviewer who blames unemployment on those benefits somewhat speciously at best (she seems to think that the high taxes in Italy pay for those benefits which they do not – the companies do), I can see that Moore makes several points that are worth considering. We should be concerned not just with profits but for the quality of life of all people. We have become a society so narrowly focused on the bottom line we’ve lost sight of what is even more important – living. And in a country where our own government has taken a scorched earth policy against the middle class, we should not be pooh-poohing new ideas and refusing to consider them because we think they won’t work here. Why wouldn’t having more women in the board room work in this country? Why wouldn’t giving our kids better nutrition at lunch work here? Why wouldn’t shorter class hours and no standardized tests work here?

Moore’s point is that we are mired in this box of thinking that everything we do is the only way to do things and if it doesn’t work, it can’t be fixed. This is a film that attempts to prove that this isn’t the case at all and I think largely Moore succeeds in making his point. While I think that two hours is a bit long for this kind of film, at least he keeps it interesting with his sense of humor and his ability to tell a story in an entertaining way.

I don’t doubt that those who consider Moore to be an irresponsible socialist lefty with an axe to grind are going to hate this and reject the message out of hand simply because it’s Michael Moore delivering it. There are also those who are going to accept everything out of hand in this documentary simply because it’s Michael Moore saying it. It behooves us to do our own research and reach our own conclusions which most of us refuse to do because it’s too much trouble. And if you wonder why the world is so messed up, there’s your reason right there.

Nevertheless, Moore raises some valid points, poses some crucial questions and makes a film that is perhaps more optimistic than any he’s ever made, and one made out of – get this – patriotism. I’m not sure who said this, but whoever it was in my book was a very wise person – a true patriot is one who loves his country enough to want to change it for the better. You can read into that whatever you like.

REASONS TO GO: Much food for thought. Moore is a wonderful raconteur. Plenty of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some graphic nudity, disturbing photos and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore with the cooperation of the distributors are screening the film for free from February 19 for two weeks in his hometown of Flint, Michigan owing to the water crisis there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sicko
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

(2015) Spy Action (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov, Guy Williams, Marianna Di Martino, David Beckham, Julian Michael Deuster, Peter Stark, Pablo Scola, Andrea Cagliesi, Peter Stark, Simona Caparrini, Joanna Metrass. Directed by Guy Ritchie

The 60s were an interesting era. While most people associate the last half of the decade of the era with the counterculture, evolution of rock and roll, protests and rioting, the first part of the era was something completely different. It was a time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the New York’s World Fair, of great stress and great optimism. It’s a time when the Beatles and Burt Bachrach co-existed on the charts, and style still held more than a trace of elegance and grace. It was the golden age of spies, with James Bond, Modesty Blaise and Matt Helm all fighting the menace of Evil Empires and Megalomaniacs bent on world domination – or destruction. It was the age of U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is a former war profiteer caught and sentenced to prison. However, the C.I.A., recognizing that his skills are superior, intervenes, allowing the sentence to be commuted – so long as he works it off for the Agency. Solo has become one of the most respected and successful spies in the business. Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer) is a KGB agent with incredible athleticism, brute strength and a temper more explosive than Vesuvius.

They butt heads when Solo tries to smuggle a pretty East German auto mechanic named Gaby (Vikander) out of East Berlin and Kuryakin is  told in no uncertain terms to stop them and he turns out to be pretty much a one-man wrecking crew, but nonetheless Solo gets the girl out of the Soviet zone.

As it turns out, her Uncle Rudi (Groth) works for Vinciguerra (which means “Win the War” in Italian), a sketchy Italian multinational corporation that may have her father, a nuclear physicist who may have discovered a means of making nuclear bombs portable. For a third party to have such destructive power at their fingertips is intolerable both for the Americans and the Russians so they decide to send their best men into the fray and get the technology for their own countries.

They will first have to get past Victoria Vinciguerra (Debicki), the twisted de facto head of the company and her vicious brother Alexander (Calvani), more thugs than you can shake a stick at and their own mutual suspicion. The game of spying has become even more complicated and confusing than ever.

Like the Mission: Impossible series, this is based on a hit TV show from the 60s but unlike the former film franchise, the filmmakers have elected to keep the film in the same general time period as the TV show which to my mind is a brilliant idea. The era is perfect for the story; they just don’t do urbane the way they used to, and Napoleon Solo is nothing if not urbane.

I like the casting in the leads but oddly enough, I’d have liked the casting better if Cavill and Hammer had switched roles. Cavill, I think, has a darker side to him than Hammer does and Hammer, who grew up not unfamiliar with the country club lifestyle, would have made an extremely convincing Solo. But then again, Hammer is a big fellow and that might not have jibed well with the Saville Row ladies man that was the American spy. Then again, David McCallum was a much less physical specimen than Hammer and still made an extremely effective Kuryakin in the TV series.

Ritchie, having done Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, has created a new niche for himself after escaping the old one. He is able to re-create the early 60s – 50 years gone now – by making the setting timeless places, mostly in the Old World. He uses vintage clothing as well as recreations to clothe his actors, although his screenwriters don’t quite have the idioms down – phrases like “skill set” and “price point” are phrases from this decade and not that one, and one would have wished the writing had been a little more careful in that regard. Comes from having young whippersnappers doing the writing (actually co-writers Lionel Wigram and Ritchie are two and eight years younger than I, so shows you what I know).

Vikander has become a hot property and this movie isn’t going to do anything to cool her down. These are the types of roles perfectly suited to growing a career; even though the movie is coming out in August, it’s still a major studio release and thus she’s going to get plenty of attention. The movie is pretty lightweight, true and so is the part although it is the most complex role in the movie but this isn’t meant to be John Le Carre; it’s light and frothy and Vikander wisely plays it that way.

And that’s really the draw for this movie; yeah, it doesn’t really add anything to the genre and yeah, it’s a pretty overcrowded field this year with James Bond waiting in the wings still, but that’s all good. When I was a kid, I used to watch the reruns of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and eagerly read the paperback novelizations of the show. Hey, my parents loved it so who am I to disagree with an endorsement like that? In any case, this is a throwback to an earlier time well-executed in every way. Think of it as a cold Pepsi on a hot August day; perfectly refreshing and very welcome.

REASONS TO GO: Perfectly set in the period. Effervescent.
REASONS TO STAY: A few anachronisms here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of action, some partial nudity and sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Solo removes a tablecloth from a table without disturbing the place settings on it, he actually does that trick, being trained by a British variety show performance who specializes in the stunt.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: People Places Things

Certified Copy (Copie conforme)


Happiness is a good public cuddle.

Happiness is a good public cuddle.

(2010) Drama (IFC) Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Jean-Claude Carriere, Agathe Nathanson, Gianna Giachetti, Adrian Moore, Angelo Barbagallo, Andrea Laurenzi, Filippo Trojano, Manuela Balsinelli. Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Some movies defy easy categorization, let alone summation. They require careful viewing in a distraction-free environment, and time enough afterwards to ponder what the viewer has seen, preferably with a nice glass of wine or a good cup of coffee.

Certified Copy is one of those films. British author James Miller (Shimell) is in Italy to discuss the Italian translation of his book which opines that while originality is preferably, there is nothing wrong with a good copy if the original is exceptional. He is talking about art of course, although his opinions also run into other aspects of life.

French ex-pat antique store owner Elle (Binoche) – whose name is never given and is referred to in the credits by the French word for “she” – is intrigued by the lecture and offers to show James around Tuscany while he waits for a 9pm train. He agrees, but first she must take her 11-year-old son (Moore) home as he is hungry and has become a distraction. She drops off her son and drives aimlessly, waiting for MIller to finish autographing copies of his book. Then they drive to the small village of Arezzo. They discuss the book in detail along the drive, then go into a museum to see a famous “copy.”

At a nearby cafe as they are having lunch the proprietress (Giachetti) mistakes them for husband and wife. While MIller is taking a cell phone call outside, she and the antique store owner talk about marriage and the antique store owner doesn’t correct the cafe owner as to the relationship with James, whom she just met. Then, things take an odd turn.

As they leave the cafe, James – who plays along with the perception that he and she are husband and wife – begins to speak to her as if they have been married for 15 years and her son is theirs. The conversation between the two becomes increasingly familiar, and the state of their relationship becomes murky. Are they truly strangers who are playing a role, or are they actually husband and wife who were pretending to be strangers? Which is real?

The truth is never clarified by Kiarostami who in the tradition of good writers allows the viewer to make up their own mind. Kiarostami, an Iranian director making his first feature film fully outside of Iran (he had shot parts of previous films outside of that country and had directed a documentary outside of Iran) is noted for his conversational pictures, with long dialogue taking place in moving cars. I’ve found his work to be an acquired taste, but when I’m in the right frame of mind the rewards are exceptional.

Shimell is a find. An opera singer (a baritone) making his first cinematic non-operatic performance, he projects a good amount of warmth. His British author is a bit prickly particularly about his scholarly work but he gives the aura of a warm giving man. Binoche is one of my favorite French actresses who displays all of the virtues that make French women irresistible; passion, opinionated and independent, which makes her unnamed character absolutely mesmerizing. The two make a splendid couple.

This is definitely not for all audiences. There is a good deal of subtlety going on and some may be confused at the change to amenable strangers to intimate lovers. Let’s just say that the subject of James’ book is a clue to what’s going on and leave it at that.

The pacing is European-slow, which also some American viewers may find frustrating. However, if you let the emotional realism wash over you and just go with the story, you will find this as rewarding as I did. Because I know not all my readers will appreciate the movie, I’m giving it a slightly lower rating than I feel it deserves – certainly this is a movie that inspires thought and debate, and not everyone is into that. However those of us that are will appreciate a movie that makes us look at a relationship from different angles – and takes for granted that the relationship isn’t what it appears to be at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily realistic, particularly from an emotional setting. Binoche and Shimell make a believable couple.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of awkward pauses. Slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Binoche won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival for her performance here.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Criterion edition includes Kiarostami’s cinematic debut, the negative to which was destroyed during the Iranian revolution and the transfer of which came from the one battered print known in existence, as well as a detailed making-of feature that includes discussion of the real incident that inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on a $4.1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunrise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Infamous

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)


A Midsummer Night's Dream

Why is it that beautiful women always fall in love with asses?

(1999) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees, Max Wright, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin, Sam Rockwell, Bernard Hill. Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

At first glance, you’d think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice for a modern interpretation of Shakespeare. In fact, with the glut of Shakespeare adaptations that were in theaters at the time – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V among them — it’s actually amazing this one didn’t get the star-studded, splashy treatment sooner.

In fact, of all of Shakespeare’s body of work other than those named above, only Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and The Tempest have more resonance to 21st-century sensibilities than this in my opinion. Of course, you may have an opinion of your own.

A talented cast makes this a Dream worth having. Updated to a late 19th-century Italian setting, Hermia (Friel) is betrothed to Demetrius (Bale), but is in fact in love with Lysander (West). Demetrius is being pursued by Helena (Flockhart), who loves him unrequitedly. Hermia and Lysander plan to flee her intractable father (Hill) and Lord Theseus (Strathairn) – who as it turns out intends to wed himself, in his case the astonishingly beautiful Hippolyta (Marceau)  – because they are forcing Hermia to wed her betrothed.

Perchance all four young people flee into a nearby forest, where Titania, Queen of the Faeries (Pfeiffer) has been carrying on, much to the chagrin of her husband Oberon (Everett). Oberon dispatches Puck (Tucci) to fetch a particular flower that when its essence is rubbed on the eyelids causes that person to fall in love with the first person they see. Mischievous Puck makes sure that the wrong lovers are paired up by the potion and that the Queen espies a would-be actor (Kline) who has been given the head of a donkey by Puck. Make sense yet? It’s Shakespeare – pay attention.

And by that I mean of course not. Truthfully, all you really need to know is that All’s Well That Ends Well and you won’t understand half of what’s going on and that’s quite okay. Still, it’s great fun to behold and I found myself laughing at lines written 500 years ago that are still uproariously funny. I’m not sure whether to be comforted or saddened that human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening centuries.

Kline, Tucci and Everett are wondrous to behold; their classical training is in evidence and all of them take their roles and run with them. Pfeiffer does surprisingly well as the promiscuous Titania; she is at the height of her beauty here and to add fuel to the fire, she is showing signs here of her immense talent which had often to this point been overshadowed by her looks. Strathairn, one of John Sayle’s repertory actors, shows a great deal of affinity for Shakespeare which should not really be surprising – a great actor will rise to the occasion when given great material.

The element of fantasy is not as intrusive here as it might be in other romantic comedies and the filmmakers wisely shy away from turning this into a special effects extravaganza, using technology sparingly and subtly to enhance the story instead of overwhelming it. Kline and Tucci are particularly enjoyable in their performances – both are terrific actors but have never been regarded as Shakespearean classicists. They handle the challenge well here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything but boring although an atmosphere free of distraction is preferable when viewing it – having a 10-year-old demanding my attention probably deducted at least half a star from the rating which is patently unfair. Nevertheless, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is frothy, lighthearted and enjoyable – a perfect introduction to the Bard for those who have had little or no experience with him.

WHY RENT THIS: Light, frothy entertainment solidly acted. A good introduction to The Bard if you are unfamiliar with his work.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be awfully confusing for those with short attention spans and an impatience for language.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the incidental music is taken from composer Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the 1843 staging of the play.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.1M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a mild box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tempest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Argo

First Position


First Position

Gaya Bommer-Yemini and Aron Bell pensively await their turn onstage.

(2011) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer-Yemini, Michaela Deprince, Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Denys Ganio, Viktor Kabaniaev, Mia Deprince. Directed by Bess Kargman

 

I must first admit to not being a ballet aficionado. I don’t know a pas de deux from joie de vivre. I know my sister took lessons when I was a kid and I’ve seen productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker thanks to parents who hoped to (quite without effect, sadly) expand my horizons artistically speaking. Like opera, dance in general and ballet in particular never appealed to me.

Understandably, I wasn’t particularly eager to go see this documentary by first-time feature director Kargman as the subject matter didn’t appeal to me much. You may well have the same prejudice in that regard as I do. However, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to love, or even know much about ballet in order to enjoy First Position.

The movie chronicles six young people ranging in age from ten to seventeen as they prepare for one of the premiere ballet competitions in the world – the Youth America Grand Prix. At stake are scholarships at prestigious academies (for younger participants) and even placements in world class ballet companies around the world. For many, this is the means to achieve a dream.

Aran (age 11) is a Navy brat, his father stationed in Italy. There, Aran is trained by a dour French instructor (Ganio) in Rome, a two hour drive from their home. His father arranged to be stationed there so that his son might continue to receive instruction. Even to an untrained eye like man, Aran has enormous potential. Graceful and precise, he makes complex moves look effortless. His dancing inspired Gaya, an Israeli, to take up ballet which is fortunate for she is a legitimate talent in her own right. She also has a major crush on Aran.

Michaela (age 14) was adopted by an elderly Jewish couple from Philadelphia from her home in war-torn Sierra Leone. A chance look at a dance magazine with a beautiful ballerina, nearly ecstatic with joy, seized Michaela’s imagination and turned her on the road to the YAGP. Along the way she must fight the mistaken perception that African-descended dancers lack the grace and elegance to be great ballet dancers – Michaela not only has grace and elegance, she has charm and wisdom as well. Her story is perhaps the most emotionally moving in the entire film.

Joan (age 16) lives in the violent Columbian city of Cali. Realizing early that he has a gift, his family sent him alone to New York City for further training. He misses his family terribly, and his family worries that he is eating too much American fast food (he’s not; most of his meals consist of rice, beans and some sort of protein mixed in). Joan, matinee idol handsome and with a spectacular body, looks to be a marquee dancer if only he can get noticed.

Miko (age 12) is a very talented dancer while her brother Jules (age 10) is less committed. Their mother is a combination of a stage mom and a Jewish mom; pushing both her children towards excellence. When both qualify for the semi-finals of the YAGP; when one of them chooses to drop ballet because it isn’t what they want to do with their lives, she is devastated. She and her Silicon Valley entrepreneur husband have moved from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek (about  a two hour drive) to be closer to the ballet teacher Miko likes (her husband moved the business there as well which I’m sure didn’t sit too well with his employees). That teacher, Viktor, is impressed with Miko and amused by Jules who is more of a typical kid. Viktor isn’t afraid to override the instructions of the meddling mom from time to time.

Only Rebecca (age 17) fits the stereotype of the ballerina; feminine almost to a fault, pretty and blonde with a preference for all things pink, a cheerleader in school and a princess in all else. She lives in suburban Maryland and unlike most of the other kids who have devoted their lives to their art to the point where all of them are home schooled, Rebecca attends high school and pretty much has a normal life. That doesn’t diminish her desire to be a ballerina however and she is hoping desperately that the representatives of the ballet companies who are attending the YAGP will not only notice her looks but also her legitimate talent as well and offer her a job.

The film looks at the things that these kids do to pursue their dream; the injuries (one of the competitors severely injures their Achilles tendon on the eve of the finals in New York City), the ridicule from other kids (at least one of the children depicted here was pulled from attending public school because of it) and the dedication to hours and hours of practice which is oftentimes painful, leaving the kids exhausted and sore. Like Olympic athletes, these kids have a dream and their parents are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

It turns out that the YAGP helped select the kids for Kargman to follow (which she did for a year) which is a little bit disturbing – how objective were the filmmakers when it came to showing some of the negative aspects of these kinds of competition such as the stress that it puts on the kids and the financial strain it puts on families. However, it does show kids doing some amazing things – the five who compete in the finals are all incredible dancers, particularly Aran who steals the show whenever he is dancing.

I will say that this doesn’t really inspire me to get season tickets to the Orlando Ballet Theatre, or to seek out performances on DVD or PBS. However, it does give me a new-found respect for the kids who work as hard as any athlete to succeed – and the families that sacrifice to give them the opportunity.

NOTE: While the film played at the Florida Film Festival last month, I was unable to see it. It is playing at the Enzian today and tomorrow.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking moments of dance. Engaging kids are not only photogenic but articulate as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes seems like a bit of an advertisement for the YAGP.

FAMILY VALUES: Generally suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kargman took ballet lessons and considered dancing professionally until she was 14, when she chose to pursue other interests.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are stellar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spellbound

COSTUME LOVERS: The tutus and costumes are varied; Aran’s for example are made for him by a professional costumer in Chicago, while Michaela’s are made by her mom. Joan wears only a simple pair of tights.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Defendor

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress