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

Focus


Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

(2015) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst, Stephanie Honore, David Stanford, Dominic Fumusa, Steve Kim, Don Yesso, Juan Minujin, Jano Seitun, Melania Lenoir, Pietro Gian, Justina Bustos, Paola Brasca, Kate Adair . Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Con artist movies are not the easiest things in the world to undertake. For one thing, we’ve all seen at least a few, from The Sting on down. It’s hard to fool veteran moviegoers and keeping the audience misdirected is the key to a successful con movie, or else the audience leaves the theater feeling as if it was they who had been conned.

Nicky (Smith) is a con artist and one of the best. He finds big sporting events – the Super Bowl, Championship Boxing matches, All-Star games – and basically invades those towns with a crew of pickpockets and thieves, using plants to distract and confuse while his light-fingered operatives steal wallets, jewelry, electronics – whatever items of value they can get their hands on. There are also the grifters who pose as aggrieved husbands and cheating wives in one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nicky and his crew can make a fortune.

Nicky has taken under his wing the lovely Jess (Robbie), an aspiring con artist who has natural talent at it but lacks the experience and some of the skills. Nicky teaches her that all of this is a matter of focus, keeping track of the lie and sticking with it. Die with the lie, he tells her when they meet when she tries unsuccessfully to swindle him. You can’t con a con man, after all.

However, when Nicky grows too fond of her, he abruptly pulls away. You can’t get too close to people in this game after all. You always have to keep your focus.

Three years later, Nicky is in the midst of working a con involving an experimental Grand Prix auto engine from a smarmy Brazilian billionaire (Santoro) with a curmudgeonly but deadly bodyguard (McRaney) when who walks into the picture? Jess, of course. Is she playing an angle or has she, as she claims, left the life and become the girlfriend of the billionaire? And what is Nicky’s angle? Who’s conning who?

Directors Ficarra and Requa also co-wrote the movie and while they have given us a slickly filmed opus with some nice visuals, there’s a good deal here that is lacking, particularly in the writing. Smith is in dire need of a hit and this isn’t likely to be it; despite the fact that he still has the charm and manner that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, audiences aren’t responding to it as much as they once did and this is the kind of script that really Smith should have passed on. He’s too good for this material.

Robbie is a star in the making. After garnering attention for her role as the trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street she shows that she has natural screen presence that holds up nicely to one of the most charismatic stars in the world which bodes well for her career. She and Smith in fact have a good chemistry, the sort that money can’t buy and their complex onscreen relationship works because of it. As I intimated, you’re never quite sure who’s conning who.

The supporting performances are strong here too, particularly from Wong who plays an Asian businessman with a penchant for gambling who gets into a battle of wills with Nicky, Martinez as the socially awkward best friend and obligatory computer genius, Brown as the captain of Nicky’s crew and McRaney at his gruff best. The acting isn’t the problem here.

The sequences of pickpockets working the Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans are artfully choreographed and fun to watch. The cinematography is nicely done as well, delivering a world that exists in the underbelly of night and on the fringes of the good life. It’s a believable looking film.

Where it goes off the rails is in the writing. For one thing, most veteran moviegoers should be able to predict what’s going to happen next without missing the mark which is a cardinal no-no in a movie like this. There are few really genuine left turns here and the movie suffers for it. There are also plenty of plot holes; the con of the Asian businessman is supposed to rely on subliminal persuasion but the explanation of them is unconvincing at best. The character development is sloppy and fairly stock for movies of this nature; one gets the sense that this is more of a compilation of con man films more than an original take on the subject, and characters often act out of character – Nicky at times for a hardened con man with a supposed heart of stone is awfully sentimental.

The movie works okay as strictly entertainment but it is eminently forgettable and won’t do much for the careers of Smith and Robbie, although they’re both pretty good here. It is typical of the kind of movies that are released in February; a cut above those that come out the month previous but in general flawed, sometimes deeply. This one is of the latter persuasion.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry between Robbie and Smith who make engaging leads. Some nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Wong, Martinez, McRaney and Brown. Nice choreography on pickpocket scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing really surprising here. Plenty of plot holes and “huh?” moments. Characters don’t really behave like how you would expect those sorts of people to behave.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, brief violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robbie and Smith will be co-starring again in next year’s Suicide Squad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grifters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: What We Do in the Shadows

The Drop


What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov, Morgan Spector, Michael Esper, Ross Bickell, James Frecheville, Tobias Segal, Patricia Squire, Ann Dowd, Chris Sullivan, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Jeremy Bobb, James Colby, Erin Drake. Directed by Michael R. Roskam

In an environment where crime is rampant and vicious ethnic gangs control the everyday goings on in the neighborhood, looking the other way becomes a necessary survival skill. Some things however cannot be looked away from.

Bob Saginowski (Hardy) tends bar at a neighborhood Brooklyn joint called Cousin Marv’s. There is a Cousin Marv (Gandolfini) – who is actually Bob’s cousin as it turns out – who lets Bob do much of the work around the bar. Bob is an industrious sort but is a bit dim-witted and socially awkward, but he’s a lot more street smart than you’d think. He realizes that Cousin Marv doesn’t own the bar that bears his name – Chechnyan mobsters do. And the bar is sometimes used as a drop for their ill-gotten gains.

Shortly after Christmas, two things happen. A couple of losers try to rob the bar, which puts Marv in the hole $5,000 to Chovka (Aronov), the charming but vicious mobster whose father is in charge of the whole show. Marv and Bob need to find the guys that robbed the bar but fast; what happens if they fail to do so is demonstrated to them rather forcefully.

On his way home from work a couple of nights later, Bob finds a pit bull puppy that’s been badly beaten in the garbage can of his neighbor Nadia (Rapace). She holds onto the dog for a few days while Bob dithers whether or not to keep the dog; he ultimately decides to and as Nadia needs some extra cash, she agrees to watch the dog while Bob’s at work. An awkward, halting romance ensues.

Into the picture comes Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), a psychopath who rumor has it murdered a pothead named Glory Days about ten years earlier after he’d left Cousin Marv’s to score some weed (the film opens up with a ten-year memorial tribute to the guy by his friends who are regulars at the bar). He is the actual owner of the dog (and responsible for its injuries) and also happens to be Nadia’s ex.

There are a number of twists and turns involving a plan to take the mob’s money on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the most profitable days of the year for illegal sports gambling, and Bob’s budding romance with Nadia. There’s also an inquisitive cop (Ortriz) who thinks there’s a lot more going on at Cousin Marv’s than an ordinary robbery and Deeds threatening Bob – he wants him to stay away from Nadia and give him back his dog, or at least pay him for it. It seems like all the walls are closing in on Bob and he’s caught in a dangerous situation where a wrong move can get him killed.

I get the sense that Roskam – who directed the fine Oscar-nominated drama Bullhead – was going for a vibe not unlike early Scorsese a la Mean Streets. You get the tight-knit aspect of the neighborhood quite nicely and you get the overwhelming influence of the criminal element on everyday life. People don’t talk to the cops around there, and they don’t trust them all that much either.

This is definitely an actor’s movie and all of the lead roles are in capable hands. Gandolfini hits it out of the park as  Cousin Marv, a man who once led his own crew and in his own words, “I was respected. I was feared. That meant something.” However, when the Chechnyans moved in, Marv in Bob’s words “blinked” and lost the bar, becoming Banquo’s ghost in his own establishment,  Gandolfini gets the seething resentment under the surface of the hangdog expression that is perpetually on Marv’s face – he’s not the sort who cracks a smile often or easily.

Rapace, who burst out of Sweden in the filmed versions of the Millennium trilogy, is still trying to break through to American audiences. She shows how talented she is as Nadia but it’s not a role that has a lot of meat on it; Nadia has been through far too much and bears too many scars to allow much to show. Rapace makes us believe that there’s a lot more to Nadia than we can see; it’s masterful work but it isn’t the kind of thing that gets one noticed in Hollywood.

Hardy, however, definitely is getting noticed. This is his second really amazing performance this year and the two roles are completely different. Although most people think of him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, he is actually much more of a complete actor. When you look at the wide range of roles he’s undertaken in recent years – romantic comedy foil, quiet emotionally stunted businessman, charismatic criminal, rural gangster, MI-6 whistleblower – it’s a resume which gets more impressive with every movie he makes.

While the plot isn’t particularly astounding, the ending did grab me by surprise. I like also that Lehane and Roskam deliberately left things ambiguous at the end, which I think added a lot to the movie. There are a lot of subtle little touches too – the Schoenaerts character’s name is something of a clue to an important plot point and you won’t get it until after the movie’s over (I won’t spoil it by telling you how). And that dog is just so damned adorable.

It is the nature of all things to be circular; as one great performer leaves us, another emerges. The sting of the loss of James Gandolfini, who as Tony Soprano delivered one of the greatest characters  in television series history is mitigated somewhat in that his final performance, as this one is, may well be one of his finest. It is also comforting to know that as Mr. Gandolfini is gone, Tom Hardy is emerging to be one of the best actors in the world. With his performance here and in Locke he has cemented 2014 as his breakout year. This is a strong effort right up there with Mystic River, the movie Lehane is best known for  Hopefully you’ll get an opportunity to catch this while it’s in your local cinemas – it’s much better than most of the other films out there.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by the leads. Nice twist. The dog is adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a few Brooklyn cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language as well as violence, some of it pretty strong.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on Lehane’s own short story “Animal Shelter” (and was originally entitled that) from the Lehane collection Boston Noir. Like most of Lehane’s work, the short story was set in Boston but the setting was moved to Brooklyn.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last I Heard
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Tusk

Oblivion


 

Morgan Freeman doesn't want Tom Cruise jumping on the couch.

Morgan Freeman doesn’t want Tom Cruise jumping on the couch.

(2013) Science Fiction (Universal) Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell, Abigail Lowe, Isabelle Lowe, David Madison, Fileena Bahris, Lindsay Clift, Joanne Bahris, Booch O’Connell, Julie Hardin, Jaylen Moore, Jeremy Sande, Jay Oliver. Directed by Joseph Kosinski   

One wonders why professional critics, who seem to be fairly intelligent and knowledgeable about movies, suddenly seem compelled to spend entire reviews of a movie bashing Tom Cruise and lamenting about his age, his off-screen drama, his acting ability or all of the above.

This movie isn’t about Tom Cruise, it merely stars him. He plays Jack Harper, a glorified repair technician. It’s 2077 and the Earth is essentially a dead planet. Aliens, called Scavs, had invaded the planet some decades earlier and while we won the war we lost the planet. The Scavs blew up the moon, causing massive tidal waves and earthquakes which essentially wiped out a huge chunk of the human race. We in turn launched our nuclear arsenal, destroying the majority of the Scav invading force but rendering most of the planet uninhabitable.

Now the surviving humans live on Titan, with a few still remaining on Earth repairing drones that monitor the planet for the remaining Scavs. Huge intake tanks are pulling up seawater necessary for fusion reactors that mean our survival on Titan. Some live on the Tet (short for Tetrahedron, which is its shape) but others. like Jack, live in cantilevered homes above the clouds; they travel on bubble ships which resemble dragonflies or old-style Bell Helicopters.

Jack and his navigator (who remains in their home and monitors him on a computer console from there) Victoria (Riseborough) have only two weeks left in their tour of duty. Victoria can’t wait to head to Titan but Jack…Jack has misgivings. Jack has doubts. Jack has strange memories of the observation deck at the Empire State Building that he can’t explain, particularly since the Empire State was, like all of New York, wiped out well before Jack was born.

Jack also shouldn’t have memories – his memory, like Victoria’s, was wiped five years ago before his mission started so that important information couldn’t get into the hands of the Scavs. He’s fine with that – duty and honor are big with Jack – but he has nagging questions that he can’t really answer and Sally (Leo) his mission control supervisor in the Tet, isn’t prone to answering them. Jack has found an isolated little valley where there is still water and grass and trees, and a cabin he built there with what trinkets and artifacts he can scavenge which he will miss on Titan most of all. But nothing can prepare Jack for the immense lie he has come to believe and what the truth of what is really out there is. Now Jack is fighting for his planet, along with a mysterious woman (Kurylenko) with connections to his past and a wise leader (Freeman) of a group of survivors who have already figured out the truth – and must convince Jack of that truth or else humanity will fade into the mists of time.

Kosinski’s follow-up to TRON: Legacy is another sci-fi epic. Universal hedged its bets a bit, placing this in an April slot that would shield it from competition with the big summer sci-fi epics which I think was a smart move. There’s plenty of eye candy here from the bubble ships which are hella cool, to the landscapes of ruined Earth which is a clever mixture of desolate Icelandic landscapes and familiar cityscapes from the big Apple.

Cruise does what he needs to do here, and that’s mainly act puzzled. Harper is one of those sorts who was born and bred to be heroic; like the original Mercury 7 or the guys in The Right Stuff his instincts are to do the right thing. That’s right in the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise; few guys can be as charismatic and heroic as he can as he’s proven in films like Jerry Maguire, The Firm and Legend. He has to carry this movie pretty much as he is in virtually every scene so as goes Tom Cruise so goes Oblivion.

He has a pretty decent support cast. Riseborough is a beautiful and talented actress who doesn’t get enough credit from mainstream Hollywood just yet. Freeman and Leo are both proven stars, both Oscar-winning performers who can be counted on to deliver sterling work.

There are a couple of major plot twists here but frankly, you are going to see both of them coming a mile away. The movie really needed a slam-bang ending  but doesn’t get one; it’s more of a fizzle and that’s one of Hollywood’s most grievous sins of late – the inability to write a good ending to a movie.

The gee-whiz factor is up there and with Cruise onscreen most of the time, they get the benefit of having one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars keeping the audience’s attention riveted where the filmmakers want it. This is a solid movie that will keep your eye candy craving satisfied at least until the summer begins.

REASONS TO GO: Cruise is, whatever else he might be, a compelling star. Pretty cool gadgets and visual effects.

REASONS TO STAY: The twists aren’t particularly hard to figure out. Sputters towards the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, a bit of nudity and sexuality and some harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The painting used in the film is “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; about as mixed a reception as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Company We Keep

Top 5 Movie Superheroes That Didn’t Start Out in Comic Books


MegaMind is something of an homage to the superhero comic books that are as indelible a part of the American landscape as the Super Bowl and Disney World. Of late, the movies have picked up on the viability of the great superhero characters, from Marvel (Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men) to DC (Batman, Superman) and the independents (Hellboy, Kick-Ass). They’ve even gotten into the act of creating their own superheroes, some of which have had comic books created for them. Here are the best of them.

HONORABLE MENTION

Captain Zoom (Tim Allen) in Zoom (2006) didn’t benefit from being in a really good movie, but that’s the breaks. While the movie is a forgettable mess, the character had a good deal of potential as a kind of cross between The Flash and a kind of alcoholic, broken-down Yoda. Allen did his best here and in a better movie, Captain Zoom would have rocked. The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church) wasn’t the most likable hero you’ll ever find, not even among his own group, The Specials (2000) but he still had something likable about him. This low-budget movie about heroes who weren’t on the A-list was barely seen, either theatrically or even on cable but it deserved a better fate. More soap opera than superhero film, it was more of a study of life in the limelight more than a special effects extravaganza which might be why audiences stayed away. Finally, while not strictly about a superhero, Jingle All the Way (1996) contains Turbo Man, a TV superhero whose action figure became the center of attention for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. Arnold even got to try the suit with all of its nifty gadgets. While played strictly for laughs, there weren’t very many of those as it turned out.

5. CAPTAIN EXCELLENT, PAPER MAN (2009)

Captain Excellent, played by soon-to-be superhero expert Ryan Reynolds, acts as more of a conscience for writer Jeff Daniels in this indie comedy. While his superpowers are essentially undefined, Excellent appears from time to time to counsel Daniels who is pretty much falling apart in real life. It’s an interesting role and an offbeat use for a costumed hero; quite frankly, I thought it quirky enough to make the list.

4. SHARKBOY, LAVAGIRL, THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL (2005) 

Robert Rodriguez has become rather adept at CGI-heavy kid films like Spy Kids and this superhero adventure, which features pre-teen heroes shepherding a daydreamer of a boy to a far out world. The dream world sequences were filmed in 3D while the real world sequences were presented in regular 2D, which meant that audiences were taking off and putting on their 3D glasses throughout the movie which was a bit of a drag. However, Sharkboy was played by a pre-Twilight Taylor Lautner which by itself may have plenty of pre-teen girls scrambling to order this on Netflix.  

3. MEGAMIND, MEGAMIND (2010)

 It’s unusual for me to include a movie I just reviewed in the Top 5, but MegaMind is such a great character there was no point in excluding him. Of course, he also has a death ray pointed at my skull at the moment, so that might also have something to do with it. In any case, this is a hero who we can all relate to; someone who has been put down and pushed around all his life to the point where he just gives up on being liked. It is only when he is forced to find his inner hero that he discovers he is a hero for all of us. This may well turn out to be the best animated movie of the year.

2. THE COMMANDER, SKY HIGH (2005) 

Kurt Russell going back to his early Disney movies was always adept at playing the hero; giving him superpowers was a masterstroke of an idea. In this teen comedy, he is the most famous hero there is, married to a beautiful super-heroine and father to a son who may eclipse the accomplishments of his parents, but on whom the pressure has become so great that he can’t perform. This was meant to become a Disney Channel series but the movie never really generated enough revenue, so despite the terrific performance of Russell (and Lynda Carter as the school principal), this remains a movie that is all about what could have been.

1. THE INCREDIBLES, THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

I admit a soft spot in my heart for this movie, and many a fellow comic book fanboy knows why. This is a comic book superhero team done Pixar-style. It incorporates many elements of typical comic superhero teams, making them a family (very much influenced by the Fantastic Four) with an alpha male (Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) who ironically enough had Reed Richards’ superpower of super elasticity, their son speedy Dash (Spencer Fox) and force field-generating daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell). There are references to 60s spy movies as well as the comic book heroes of the 90s and before. It’s a terrific movie and the heroes are all heroes I’d follow in the comics, which really is the benchmark for any movie hero.