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

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Hank and Asha


The movie fails to explore Asha's alcohol issues, alas.

The movie fails to explore Asha’s alcohol issues, alas.

(2013) Romance (FilmRise) Mahira Kakkar, Andrew Pastides, Brian Sloan, Ken Butler, Brian Patrick Murphy, Robyn Kerr, Jean-Baptiste Moreau, Samuel Beckwith, Margot Duff, Jiri Dular, Vaiva Katinaityte, Anna Tydlitatova, Bianca Butti. Directed by James E. Duff

In the 21st century courtship is changing. Once upon a time everything was done face to face. Long distance romance involved writing letters which took days to arrive. Yes, the dark ages of the 1980s when computers were just becoming prevalent in society we resorted to phone calls and letters, as well as actual dates. These days, our communication methods have changed as our technology as changed. Video calls, e-mails and social media have replaced earlier means of communication and thus courtship as well. We get to know each other in different ways than we once did.

Hank (Pastides) is a young man from North Carolina who moved to New York to pursue a career in film making. He managed to make a documentary about ballroom dancing that is making the rounds at festivals around the world, but his main income comes from being a production assistant on a reality show in which spoiled rich kids change their identities for a day. Mainly he sits in a van waiting for his walkie talky to summon him to fetch coffee or chauffeur cast or crew.

Asha (Kakkar) is a woman of Indian background who is studying film in Prague. She caught Hank’s documentary at a film festival there and was much taken by it. She had hoped that he would be present for a Q&A afterwards and was disappointed that he was not, so she decided to ask him a few questions anyway via video mail. She is very pleased to find out he’s a handsome young man and not, as she puts it, a crusty old documentarian which is what she assumed he was.

Hank responds in kind, answering her questions and asking a few of his own. Soon they are corresponding regularly and giving each other video tours of their apartments, of Asha’s film school and Hank’s “office” (the van he drives). They become friends, looking forward to their messages and becoming concerned when there are gaps in the other’s replies. The friendship begins to deepen as they start to make plans to meet in Paris, a place Asha has always wanted to visit. However, like most relationships, making it to Paris requires that a big dose of reality has to be addressed first.

I found the structure of the movie somewhat innovative – basically the movie consists of the exchanged video messages. At no point do the two ever converse directly with each other via video chat, which seems to be something Asha is reluctant to do after Hank suggests it early on. We find out why later on, but that does add a degree of difficulty to the movie in that it becomes something of a found footage romance. Keeping it interesting can be a challenge but the filmmakers actually manage to do that, engaging in a commentary on modern romance via technology along the way.

Hank and Asha make an engaging couple. They mesh well together and are exceedingly cute, not only physically. Asha has a sweet smile and her expression as she samples world famous Czech beer is absolutely precious – beer is most definitely an acquired taste, even excellent beer. There haven’t been many instances I’m aware of where someone tasted beer for the first time and exclaimed “Wow! That’s really delicious!”

For his part, Pastides is a charismatic presence. His face is very expressive and at times he’s required to express frustration, confusion, hurt and goofy charm and often does so wordlessly. He has a sequence that’s essentially a take-off on the Tom Cruise dance from Risky Business that is lovely, although it does go on a bit too long.

The problem with the movie is that it’s essentially an hour and a half of, if you’ll forgive the use of an industry term, meet cute. Montages of them travelling around their respective cities set to jangly indie rock is a bit cliche and a bit of a cheat as well, even though these are sequences supposedly created by Hank and Asha themselves. I found that they stop the movie in their tracks and forced me to grouse about indie film cliches until the movie resumed its conversational tone.

Another thing I would have liked to have seen is the two characters reveal a bit more about themselves. Of course, that might be a point the filmmakers are trying to get across – that modern technology puts up different kinds of walls, allowing us to show only our surface selves and nothing of who we truly are. And that’s a perfectly valid point, to be sure. Yes, Hank talks about his relationship with his parents and Asha has a brief moment where she feels like she doesn’t belong because she’s the only Indian student in the school and so she’s completely out of place but those are fleeting insights and are not really followed up upon. We never truly see Hank and Asha with any depth and quite frankly, the surface aspects of both of them are so engaging that I would have liked to get to know them better. Alas, that is the curse of modern life I suppose.

REASONS TO GO: The couple is utterly adorable. Nice commentary on modern romance.
REASONS TO STAY: Descends into the realm of too cute occasionally..
FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hank and Asha debuted at Slamdance in the dramatic film competition.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time Next Year
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skin I Live In

My Week With Marilyn


Beauty personified.

Beauty personified.

(2011) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Zoe Wanamaker, Emma Watson, Toby Jones, Phillip Jackson, Geraldine Somerville, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Simon Russell Beale, Pip Torrens, Michael Kitchen, Miranda Raison, Karl Moffatt, Robert Portal. Directed by Simon Curtis

In 1957, American icon Marilyn Monroe flew to London to begin work on a movie directed by the legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier. With husband and playwright Arthur Miller in tow and an entourage that included acting coach Paula Strasberg, she made a sensation in England but her tardiness on-set, difficulty remembering her lines and feuds with Olivier and cameraman Jack Cardiff created a chaotic environment that has become legendary in Hollywood.

Colin Clark (Redmayne) remembers it differently however. Hired out of Eton College by Olivier (Branagh) at the insistence of Vivien Leigh (Ormond), then Olivier’s wife, he was Olivier’s on-set Boy Friday, impressing the great actor by not only procuring a house for the Americans to stay in during shooting but a second back-up house when the British press discovered the location of the first.

His view of Marilyn (Williams) was much kinder. He saw a woman tormented by the demands of fame, insecure about her abilities as an actress and humiliated by Miller’s (Scott) new play which seems to take some very personal jabs at her. With only Clark and actress Dame Sylvia Thorndike (Dench) in her corner, she finds going to work on the set to be nearly intolerable.

Her only solace comes from Colin, who squires her about England and with whom she develops a sort-of romantic relationship with, much to the chagrin of Lucy (Watson), a costume assistant whom he is dating. He is warned that she will break his heart but he is heedless; what man of that era wouldn’t want to be involved with Marilyn Monroe? However, those who surround her and who are vested in protecting her image may not necessarily be sanguine about his relationship with her.

This is what I call a quasi-true story. It is true that Monroe worked in London on The Princess and the Showgirl and had the difficulties spoken of earlier. However, this film is based on the diaries of Clark who did also work on the film but the depth of the relationship with Monroe that he claimed has never been corroborated. That aspect of the drama must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

However, there is nothing “quasi” about the performance of Michelle Williams as Monroe. Justifiably lauded with a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination, she captures the late icon’s sexiness, public vivaciousness, vulnerability, insecurities and innate sweetness that made a generation obsessed with her. It is easy to see in fact why we are still obsessed with her today. Williams has developed into one of the most compelling actresses in Hollywood and to my mind is the most likely bet to succeed Meryl Streep as the best actress in Hollywood. This performance is a good reason why I think so.

The good performances don’t end there. Branagh, a great actor in his own right, delivers one of his finest performances in a decade. Dench is always solid if not terrific; here she is the latter. Redmayne delivers a warmth in his character which while appealing isn’t enough to be the center of the film; it makes one wish for more concentration on Marilyn which sort of defeats the purpose – it’s not My Week with Colin after all.

Like many British films, this is exceedingly well-acted and well-written. While it doesn’t have the oomph or the fireworks to really attract an American audience, it is still one of those movies that gives a whole lot of enjoyment more than it does insight.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performance by Williams. Supporting cast superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clark, who is the center of the film, is much less interesting than Monroe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of foul language, some sexual situations and some suggested nudity..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The re-enactments of The Princess and the Showgirl were filmed on the very same soundstage where the original was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed. Sadly, Weinstein missed an opportunity to explore that period of Monroe’s life with a featurette – surely there was plenty of archival footage of Monroe in London during that period.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on a $10 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being Sellers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Elysium